Bellingham teen: ‘I was the only one that made it out’

Autumn Veatch
Autumn Veatch Courtesy

With twigs and leaves stuck to her torn clothes and bruises covering her body, Autumn Veatch held a phone in her burnt hands Monday and told the 911 dispatcher she was the lone survivor of a fiery plane crash two days earlier.

In a recording released Tuesday, the 16-year-old Bellingham girl told the dispatcher, “I was riding from Kalispell, Montana, to Bellingham, Washington, and … I don’t know where, but we crashed and I was the only one that made it out.”

Veatch survived the mountain plane crash and was being treated for dehydration Tuesday at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster. Family members and friends said they expected her to be released soon.

The teen was flying with her stepgrandparents, Leland Bowman, 62, and Sharon Bowman, 63, in a Beech A-35 Bonanza from Kalispell to Lynden on Saturday when the plane disappeared from radar.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers interviewed Veatch and relayed details of her ordeal.

He said the plane was flying over North Central Washington when it entered a cloud bank. Then the clouds suddenly parted, and from her seat behind the cockpit, Veatch could see the mountain and trees ahead.

Leland Bowman tried to pull up, to no avail. They hit the trees and the plane plummeted to the ground and caught fire.

“She tried to do what she could to help her grandparents, but she couldn’t because of the fire,” Rogers said.

Veatch stayed at the crash site for a day before deciding to hike down.

The Easy Pass trail area the teen hiked down has some of the most difficult terrain to search in the state, according to the Washington state Department of Transportation.

Veatch followed a creek to a river and spent a night on a sand bar, where she felt safer. She drank small amounts of the flowing water, but worried she might get sick if she drank more.

She followed the river to a trail, and the trail to a highway.

Two men driving along state Route 20 stopped and picked her up Monday afternoon, bringing her — about two full days after the crash — to the safety of a general store in Mazama, a tiny town near the east entrance of North Cascades National Park.

Employees called 911, and Veatch told the dispatcher she had “a lot of burns on my hands and I’m like kind of covered with bruises and scratches and stuff.”

Authorities continued searching for the plane’s wreckage Tuesday near Omak, aided by clues Veatch provided.

Still, finding the wreckage and getting to it remains a daunting challenge, said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lustick of the Civil Air Patrol, especially considering that the plane may have broken apart and now be hidden under the thick tree canopy.

“It’s a really steep mountain, and it’s going to be difficult to spot,” he said. “This is a place where it was difficult for her to come down, but it’s going to be even tougher going up. This isn’t the kind of place where you can just go in by foot.”

At least 38 aviation crashes have been recorded in Okanogan County since 1982, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s crash database. Five people died in those crashes.

Veatch’s father, David, said he plans to let her rest on the couch with “all the remotes” for as long as she wants.

“She’s just an amazing kid,” he said. “There’s more to her than she knows. I try to tell her that. Maybe now she’ll believe it.”

The Associated Press, The Seattle Times and The Bellingham Herald contributed to this report.