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Autumn Veatch: ‘I was 100 percent certain I was going to die’

Video: Bellingham teen talks about surviving plane crash

Plane crash survivor Autumn Veatch, 16, of Bellingham, talks Friday, July 17, 2015, about surviving the plane crash that took the lives of her step-grandparents last weekend in the Cascade Mountains. (video originally published July 17, 2015)
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Plane crash survivor Autumn Veatch, 16, of Bellingham, talks Friday, July 17, 2015, about surviving the plane crash that took the lives of her step-grandparents last weekend in the Cascade Mountains. (video originally published July 17, 2015)

There was a point when Autumn Veatch was sure her life was over — that she would die at the age of 16 without saying goodbye to her mom, dad or boyfriend, and she would never have the chance to apologize to anyone she had wronged.

She wanted to give up.

She’s not sure why, but that day, Sunday, July 12, the day after she survived a plane crash and watched her step-grandparents die, she had “a sudden boost of motivation” to keep moving through the forest and find civilization.

“I was just like, no. I’m not going to die, I’m not going to die. I can’t do this. I can’t do this to anybody. I can’t do this to my loved ones. I can’t do this to myself, and I started moving for the rest of the day,” Autumn said Friday, July 17, in an interview.

Before the fiery plane crash tested her will to live, Autumn said she finally felt like she was on her way to living what she called “a good life.” And thanks to her refusal to give up, along with some smart decisions while hiking out of the rugged North Cascades forest, Autumn now has a chance to continue on that path.

Growing up in Bellingham, Autumn’s mom had trouble finding stable housing when Autumn was younger. Her parents never married, and she often had to move to another home and transfer to a different school. It was difficult to make friends.

“It was hard, because I was kind of a weird kid and stuff, and so it was hard for me to make new friends all the time,” Autumn said.

Her mom, Misty Bowman, married Robert Bowman when Autumn was in middle school. Even then, her mom and step-dad moved back and forth from Montana to Bellingham multiple times. She spends the majority of the year with her dad, David Veatch, in Bellingham.

Autumn, who will be a junior at Bellingham High School next school year, likes drawing cartoons and pictures of people, usually “non-conventionally attractive people,” she said. Recently, she took to playing bass guitar. Her interest in music was something she shared with her step-grandfather, Leland Bowman.

Autumn met her step-grandparents at her mom’s wedding two years ago. Leland and Sharon Bowman were nice, sweet people who were easy to talk to, Autumn said.

On Autumn’s last trip to visit her mom in Montana, she got to know them better than ever. Sharon, 63, reminded Autumn of her mom. Leland, 62, showed Autumn his keyboard and his upright bass, and she remembers joking with him about how hard it was to sing and play bass at the same time.

Saturday’s flight

They were supposed to fly Autumn back to the Lynden Airport on their Beech A35 aircraft around 7 a.m. Saturday, July 11.

That morning, Autumn’s mom woke her up and told her to get ready. The flight was delayed due to bad weather. They wanted to be safe.

Later, at 1 p.m., they decided the weather was “as good as it’s going to get,” so they took off from Kalispell, Montana.

Autumn had only been on an airplane a couple times before, and never on a small, private plane. She said she was worried from the beginning — partly due to anxiety issues, but mostly because “flying is scary.”

They were flying for about an hour and a half when the flight started to become bumpy. She figured it was normal because her step-grandparents had experience flying, but it scared her enough that she sent texts to her friends, jokingly saying she was going to die.

She lost cellphone service when they started getting near the mountains. They almost crashed once, but Leland, the pilot, was able to turn the plane away and avoid it. They were using a GPS system on a tablet to see where the mountains were, but the tablet began malfunctioning.

There were several thunderstorms in the Cascades west of Mazama that afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Tobin said. Heavy rain, gusty winds, and at least 50 lighting strikes made from 1 to 7 p.m. would have made it tough for a small plane to pass through.

Around 20 minutes after they almost crashed, they found themselves stuck in a cloud. They could see only white. Autumn was crouched down toward the back of the plane. She heard her step-grandfather say something to the effect of, “I don’t know where I am, we’re going to crash, I’m going to hit the mountains, so we’re going to go up.”

The plane crashed.

It caught fire. Autumn is not sure how, but she was able to escape. She immediately tried to help Leland and Sharon out of the flames as they screamed for help. She knew she would have to pull Leland out first because she couldn’t get to Sharon. The fire burned Autumn’s hand as she tried to pull Leland out but couldn’t, and within seconds, both of her step-grandparents could no longer scream for help.

Skagit County Deputy Coroner Matthew Sias has said the cause of death for both Bowmans was “blunt trauma,” and they died quickly.

Autumn went downhill and found a stream, which she thought might lead her back to people. As she ran, she kept falling down and getting back up, over and over, and at one point stumbled and fell off a small cliff. She sat there for a couple seconds before she got up and kept moving.

Her adrenaline went away Saturday night, and her hand started hurting from the burn. The sleeve of her sweater was wet, so she wrapped it around her hand to help cool it down.

At night, she stripped down to a tank top and underwear. Hanging her clothes up to dry didn’t work, since the forest was wet, so she pulled her knees to her chest, her sweater over her body, hugged herself, and breathed down into her sleeve. She hoped her own breath would keep her warm.

“I was thinking I was going to die, and I was going to die at 16 years old without doing anything really important with myself,” Autumn said. “There was a lot of crying, that’s probably part of what dehydrated me, was I was crying for probably the entire day and blaming myself for their deaths, because they’re the ones that wanted to fly me and they didn’t deserve anything like that to happen to them. I love them a lot.”

When she woke up the next morning, Sunday, she thought hypothermia would kill her.

“I was 100 percent certain I was going to die, and I wanted to just give up.”

A boost of energy

Autumn’s family and friends, expecting to see her that afternoon, notified authorities about the overdue plane in Lynden on Saturday night.

The last radar from the plane was dropped around 3:21 p.m. Saturday near Omak. Autumn’s last cellphone signal was detected at 3:49 p.m., the Washington State Department of Transportation said. The search was focused on an area near Rainy Pass, Lost River Resort Airport and the unincorporated town of Mazama.

Civil Air Patrol crews searched all day Sunday, July 12, for the plane wreckage.

Autumn could see the planes flying above her. Even though she waved and tried to get their attention, she knew they couldn’t see her.

She was lying by the stream that she’d been following, ready to give up, when she thought she heard the sounds of a highway and a helicopter. She felt a boost of energy. With her hand tied in her sleeve, her whole body sore, and having nothing to drink other than a few sips of water from the stream, she continued downhill.

It was her memory of the little things — cereal, her favorite songs, the feeling of hugging another person — that kept her motivated. To keep her spirits up, she sang songs by Karen O.

At one point that day, she climbed down the side of a waterfall, terrified she would die if she missed a step. But she kept going along the terrain — land that challenges even the most experienced hikers.

She eventually came to a bridge, which she would later learn was part of the Easy Pass Trail, and she followed the trail until she came to a parking lot by Highway 20 on Monday. She waved down every car that came by, but nobody would stop until an hour later, when a driver named Matt, with another man in the passenger seat, stopped for her.

They took Autumn to Mazama Store, the first stop on the way down from Washington Pass, where they could find a phone. Store employees said Autumn looked dazed, and Autumn admitted she was in shock. It was there that Autumn told a 911 dispatcher that she was the only survivor of a plane crash.

“A good life”

Lying in a hospital bed Monday night, July 13, with no other patients around, Autumn saw her own face on the TV screen.

“That’s when it became real for me,” Autumn said. “I looked over at the TV and was like, ‘What?’”

She was treated at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster for dehydration and treatable rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases damaging protein into the blood.

She was released from the hospital Tuesday night, July 14, and arrived home in Bellingham just after midnight. She spent the next day with family and friends, and began talking to national TV news on Thursday. Also Thursday, crews found the crash site, which was still smoldering, and recovered two bodies from the wreckage.

The attention she is getting is strange, she said. Some people have called her “the girl who lived.” Yet she only sees herself as an ordinary person who made some good decisions on her way to survival.

When the cameras go down, she said, she often sobs, knowing the experience will affect her emotionally for the rest of her life.

“I’ve struggled with suicide and depression and things like that, and that’s obviously not going to go away especially, you know, after all this,” Autumn said.

She had just started to feel comfortable with herself, she said. The worst part about the experience was feeling like all of that would be taken away. Now a survivor, she has more energy, and wants to be around people more than ever before.

“I want to go out and live, and I want to talk to people, and I want to do all of this stuff,” she said. “It can just be taken away from you so fast, I was not ready for that at all. There were so many things I wanted to do.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

FUND FOR AUTUMN VEATCH

Friends of Autumn have started a gofundme account in her name to raise money for a new laptop and other items lost in the plane crash. Autumn says those things help her feel like a normal teenager, and she expects she’ll need money to pay for counseling.

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