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Bellingham teen walks out of mountains after plane crash

David Veatch, father of Bellingham High student Autumn Veatch, 16, talks to the media Monday at the Civil Air Patrol station at Bellingham International Airport. Autumn Veatch, who was on a private plane that never reached Lynden on Saturday afternoon, was taken Monday to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster after she was picked up by a motorist who drove her to safety. At right is Autumn's friend Chelsey Clark.
David Veatch, father of Bellingham High student Autumn Veatch, 16, talks to the media Monday at the Civil Air Patrol station at Bellingham International Airport. Autumn Veatch, who was on a private plane that never reached Lynden on Saturday afternoon, was taken Monday to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster after she was picked up by a motorist who drove her to safety. At right is Autumn's friend Chelsey Clark. The Bellingham Herald

The voice on the phone was a miracle.

It wasn’t another reporter, wasn’t search-and-rescue officials, wasn’t more supportive friends.

It was Autumn Veatch, 16, calling Monday from a hospital in Brewster, telling her father, David Veatch, and friends an unbelievable survival tale.

It was a voice most of them had privately feared they would never hear again.

Autumn Veatch was not, as many had feared, dead in a small-plane crash in the North Cascades. She was alive, and aside from some minor burns, dehydration and exhaustion from a two-day ordeal that surely will qualify as an epic survival tale, Autumn was OK.

And she was more than ready to come home, she told her father and family friends gathered around a speakerphone in the family’s Bellingham apartment.

Details of her ordeal during the brief hospital call were sparse, but rejoicing was immense, said Santina Lampman, a longtime family friend in the room Monday afternoon who later recounted the call to The Seattle Times.

During the call, Autumn quickly explained how the small plane she’d been traveling in with her stepgrandparents, Leland and Sharon Bowman of Marion, Mont., had crashed in the rugged North Cascades. Autumn somehow survived the impact and futilely tried to pull the Bowmans from the wreckage.

She stuck by the scene for some time, hoping for help, Autumn told them. But ultimately, she decided she needed to get out of the mountains on her own.

The Bellingham High School junior-to-be had little outdoor training, but she did what survival experts probably would have advised: She followed a drainage down to a river, then the river, via a trail, downstream to the nearest road, Lampman said.

Authorities identified the trail as the Easy Pass trail, a popular but difficult hike in the rugged mountain terrain. It led Autumn to state Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, where she caught a ride with hikers to the nearest community — Mazama, in the Methow Valley — and contacted authorities.

When Autumn walked into the Mazama Store on Monday, store manager Serena Lockwood said she looked “dazed and not fully aware of what was going on.”

C.B. Thomas, the first responder from Aero Methow and another manager at the store, said Veatch arrived at 2:45 p.m. wearing a loose sweater, jeans and sneakers. He said she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for “about three days.”

“She was obviously upset and distraught,” Thomas said. “She was shaking. She was certainly able to communicate her situation and kind of apologized for being upset and not speaking clearly.”

She was taken to Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster with injuries that were not life-threatening, but she sufferedfrom dehydration and exposure to the elements, officials said. She was admitted overnight and diagnosed with treatable rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to damaging protein in the blood.

During Autumn’s phone call home to her father, her brief description of the crash gave the impression that the Bowmans died “on impact, or shortly after,” Lampman said.

Authorities had not confirmed the conditions of Leland Bowman, 62, and Sharon Bowman, 63, as of Monday night.

The couple’s downed plane hadn’t been found by Monday night, according to WSDOT Emergency Management and Security Coordinator John Himmel. But information provided by Autumn helped narrow down the search area where the plane is believed to have crashed, officials said.

Searching for the plane is difficult because authorities are dealing with “rocks and trees and lots of nooks and crannies,” Himmel added.

“Probably the most difficult terrain to try and do the search in the state of Washington,” he said.

The Beech A-35 left Montana about 1 p.m. PDT Saturday. Family members notified authorities when the plane did not arrive.

The plane crossed the Idaho-Washington border about 2:20 p.m. PDT Saturday, but it dropped off the radar near Omak, Okanogan County, about an hour later, transportation officials said. The last cellphone signal from one of the plane’s occupants was detected around 3:50 p.m.

During her call home Monday to her father, both Autumn and her father were understandably overwhelmed, Lampman said.

“I think she’s just happy she’s alive,” said Lampman, a former neighbor of the Veatches’ whose daughter, Amber Shockey, has been a friend of Autumn’s since first grade. “She did joke that it was a good thing she’d watched all those ‘Survivor’ shows that she didn’t like, but her dad made her watch anyway.”

The Easy Pass trail has a gain in elevation of 2,800 feet, according to the Washington Trails Association, which called it “anything but easy” on its website and described one portion of the trail as “quite a climb.”

The trail was originally called “Easy” Pass because it was the only place to put a trail across “ragged ridges” in the area, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Lampmans were at the Veatches’ apartment at 5 p.m. Monday when David Veatch left, with friends, for the four-hour drive on state Route 20 to reunite with Autumn and bring her home.

The jubilation over Autumn’s survival was tinged with regret at the possible deaths of the Bowmans.

“I feel terrible for the family of the grandparents,” Lampman said.

Autumn Veatch, a former Sehome High School student, continued to live with her father after her parents divorced and her mother, Misty Bowman, relocated to Montana a couple of years ago, friends said.

“She’s an amazing, witty, creative, loving human being,” said Chelsey Clark, a family friend of Autumn’s and her father. “She loves art, she’s amazing at drawing, she loves music and she’s a quirky, sarcastic girl.”

Even as Autumn was making her way out of the mountains, a data trail from previous activity on her cellphone was helping searchers locate the plane’s last known position.

Lampman’s 16-year-old daughter provided searchers with screen grabs of times and contents of Autumn’s last text messages to her friends — apparently providing the last known cell signal used to establish a search area, Lampman said.

When Amber heard the news that her friend was alive, “She lost it. She freaked out,” Lampman said.

Several hours after Autumn’s phone call Monday, her friends still seemed in a state of giddy shock that she was likely to be on her way home soon.

“We were refusing to accept” that she was gone, Lampman said. “We never really lost hope.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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