The knock was faint. But, alerted by his two dachshunds, Larry Wilkins went to his door. He opened it to see a young girl — her lips quivering, her nose bloodied, her arms and legs scratched up.
And, somehow, still alive.
“She told me that her mom and dad were dead,” Wilkins said. “And that she had been in a plane crash.”
The girl’s sister and cousin also died when their Piper PA-34 aircraft went down Friday evening in western Kentucky. Even with the plane upside down, the 7-year-old made it out, trekked three-quarters of a mile in the dark through what Wilkins described as “very, very rough territory” — mired with fallen trees, creeks, ditches and blackberry briars.
The girl was barefoot except for one sock and was dressed for Florida — shorts, no coat — not for slogging through the January cold of Kentucky. Wilkins got her on his couch and called 911, alerting authorities that a plane had gone down and there was at least one survivor.
Kentucky State Police troopers arrived in about 10 minutes. Sgt. Dean Patterson said the girl was taken to a local hospital with “non-life-threatening injuries.”
“She’s a terribly brave little girl, I’ll tell you that,” Wilkins said. “… I can’t imagine a 7-year-old doing that.”
FAA: Pilot reported engine problems
The plane this girl was on had left the warm, sunny climes of Key West, Florida, earlier Friday, heading for Mount Vernon, Illinois — a small city of about 15,000 people roughly 80 miles east of St. Louis.
Until something went wrong. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen explained that air traffic controllers “lost contact with a Piper PA-34 aircraft … shortly after the pilot reported engine problems, and (said) that he was diverting to the Kentucky Dam State (Park) Airport.”
The twin-engine aircraft didn’t make it, crashing in Lyon County, about 30 miles east of Paducah, and less than 10 miles from the airport.
Soon after, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched teams to investigate the crash.
The grieving has already begun. Kentucky State Police identified the dead early Saturday as Marty Gutzler, 48, Kimberly Gutzler, 46, and 9-year-old Piper Gutzler — a husband, wife and their daughter. Also killed was 14-year-old Sierra Wilder, the survivor’s cousin. All were from Nashville, Illinois.
Kentucky State Police Lt. Brent White told CNN affiliate KFVS that first responders ” worked tirelessly to find this wreckage and hopefully salvage the lives of those that were on board.”
“But, ultimately, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt, from Nashville’s Trinity Lutheran Church, said those killed — who he’s known for four years — “will be deeply missed.”
“The Gutzlers were a wonderful family and wonderful members of our congregation and community,” Wietfeldt said.
Police: ‘It’s just really a miracle’
How the youngest person on the plane managed to emerge alive also hit close to home for many like White, who has a 8-year-old girl of his own.
“When I saw … what appeared to be a 7-year-old child that had walked through this dense forest and through some really tough terrain and some awfully poor conditions tonight and survived this,” White said, “it’s just really a miracle.”
Wilkins believes the girl saw his street lights from the woods and, thankfully, found him — in one of only three homes in his neighborhood that are occupied in winter.
She was released from Lourdes Hospital in Paducah just after 1 a.m. (2 a.m. ET), state police said.
Thinking about what the 7-year-old went through, and what comes next, brings tears to Wilkins’ eyes, he said.
“I just feel so sorry for that little girl, I can’t understand it,” Wilkins said. “… I just can’t imagine (going through) that, for someone that young.”