The 7-year-old girl who walked away from a small plane crash in western Kentucky that killed four members of her family used survival skills passed down to her by her father to find her way to safety, relatives told NBC News.
Sailor Gutzler was the sole survivor after her family’s Piper twin-engine aircraft landed upside down in a wooded area in Lyon County on Friday, leaving her parents, sister and cousin dead. The plucky girl got out of the plane, lit a stick from the burning wing and then walked away through the darkness, her family said Saturday. The strong-willed second-grader trekked three-quarters of a mile through the woods and a creek before she knocked on a homeowner’s door for help.
Her father, Marty Gutzler, 48, was flying the aircraft in « inclement weather » when he made a distress call at about 5:55 p.m. CT Friday, Kentucky State Police said during a briefing Saturday. The four members of the Gutzler family and a 14-year-old cousin were returning from a Christmas vacation in Key West, Florida, to their home near Mount Vernon in southern Illinois.
Federal investigators began combing through the crash site Saturday to determine what led to the accident.
The other passengers were identified as Gutzler’s wife, Kimberly Gutzler, 46; their daughter, Piper Gutzler, 9; and her cousin, Sierra Wilder, 14.
Sailor’s father, Marty Gutzler, had been flying since he was 16, logging about 4,000 hours, and taught as a flight instructor, family said. He had made that same trip from Florida to Illinois « many, many times, » a family friend told NBC News.
The family owned Gutzler’s Furniture, which Marty Gutzler’s father opened more that 50 years ago in their hometown of Nashville, Illinois. Troy Dunbar, a 15-year employee and family friend, said the accident was a « big time » loss for the area. « This family is very embedded in the community, » Dunbar said.
« She is a survivor — she was simply trying to get help for her family. »
Forty minutes after air traffic control last heard from Gutzler’s plane, police received a call from a resident who said he found a girl who claimed she had been in a plane crash and that her parents were dead. Larry Wilkins told NBC News the girl arrived on his doorstep wearing no shoes, just one sock and « dressed for Florida » in below-40 degree weather.
« She asked if she could stay here. I said, ‘Honey, what can I do for you?' » said Wilkins, 71. « I got a wash cloth and cleaned her up. And of course called 911. »
When police arrived, Sailor was « very shaken, but alive, » said Kentucky State Police Lt. Brent White, adding that the young girl had suffered « some broken bones. » Sailor told police she had tried to wake up her family before leaving the site of the crash, White said. « She is a survivor — she was simply trying to get help for her family, » he added.
Sailor was treated at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, and released early Sunday morning, according to Kentucky State Police.
A statement from the Gutzler family asked for prayers — especially for Sailor. « We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God’s loving arms, » said family spokesman Kent Plotner.
Michelle Hofland and PHil Helsel contributed to this report.