Larry Wilkins had just finished watching the evening news and was about to switch on his computer when heard a noise at the door. Initially, he thought it was the raccoon that he had been stealing the food he put out for his two dachshunds.
But when he turned the handle he was confronted by a remarkable sight – a bloodied and barefoot seven-year-old girl named Sailor Gutzler who had an even more remarkable story to tell.
“She said ‘my mum and dad are dead. I have been in a plane crash and the plane is upside down’,” Mr Wilkins, a retired parts manager, told The Independent from his home in Kuttawa, Kentucky.
On Sunday, experts from the National National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were to scour the site where the Piper PA-34 came down, killing Sailor’s mother, father, sister and cousin, in a hunt for clues. Sailor’s father, Marty Gutzler, had reported engine problems with the plane shortly before losing contact with air traffic controllers at around 6pm on Friday.
Officials said that the plane had taken off from Tallahassee, Florida, and that Mr Gutzler, who ran a furniture store, was flying towards Mount Vernon, Illinois. The group – made up of Sailor, her father, her mother Kimberly, 46, her sister Piper, nine, and her 14-year-old cousin Sierra Wilder – had celebrated the New Year at a resort in Key West. They came from the small town of Nashville, Illinois.
Federal investigators from Washington will try and assess what happened to the plane. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Mr Gutzler, 48, had told air traffic controllers that he had encountered problems and was going to try and head to the Kentucky Dam State Park Airport, which he believed to be less than ten miles from his location.
The twin-engined plane did not make it, crashing in Lyon County,about 30 miles east of the town of Paducah, and perhaps just quarter-of-a-mile, as the crow flies, from Mr Wilkins home.
As investigators probe the causes of the crash, it is the survival of the little girl that has gripped the nation’s attention. NBC reported that relatives said Sailor had been taught survival techniques by her father which may have helped her. Mr Wilkins said he thought it was “a pure mracle”.
He said that when she arrived at his home she was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, shorts, no shoes and one sock. Outside it was close to freezing, given that an ice storm had recently passed through. He said she had to walk through dense woodland and cross a ditch that was 17-feet deep to make it to his house. He assumed she had seen the red light on his porch-way and had headed for that.
“I don’t like to walk barefoot in those woods in the day time, never mind at night,” he said. Mr Wilkins said that after calling the emergency services and lying the girl on a sofa, he collected a wash cloth and warm water and helped wash her face and feet.
While she was crying and trembling, Mr Wilkins said she had been remarkably composed. He said he believed she was comforted by the presence of his dogs, Bonnie and Pete.
“She wanted me to come to the hospital but I was told I was not allowed because I was not a member of the family,” he said.
Officials said Sailor suffered only a broken wrist. She was treated at hospital before being released to a relative over the weekend.
“She literally fell out of the sky into a dark hole and didn’t have anybody but her own will to live and get help for her family,” Kentucky Police Lt Brent White told reporters. “Absolutely amazing.”
On Sunday, the Associated Press said that family members had declined to speak further about the incident. Lawyer Kent Plotner, who is serving as a family spokesman, said the Gutzler family was devastated.
He released a statement that said: “We ask that you respect our privacy at this difficult time. Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler.”
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