KUTTAWA, Ky. — Winter is not typically the busy season for Kuttawa (kuh-TAH-wah), a little vacation town on the north bank of Lake Barkley in far western Kentucky. But after the tragic plane crash on January 2 that left four dead and one miraculous survivor, Kuttawa exploded into high season, with as many reporters in town as vacationers renting pontoon boats on Fourth of July weekend.
Now that the NTSB has carted off the wreckage of the Piper PA-34 airplane and the lone survivor, 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler, has been reunited with her remaining family in Nashville, Illinois, Kuttawa has begun to get back to its normal winter pace.
Still, the crash remains the topic of local conversation. At the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Elizabethtown, about 130 miles east of town, the waitstaff traded their versions of the story with one another before dawn on Tuesday morning, each detail adding a greater level of awe that this girl could have survived her ordeal: both parents killed; trapped upside down in the crashed plane; walked nearly a mile through the woods in the dark and rain; with no shoes; in a T-shirt and shorts; with a broken wrist; and only one sock. For God-fearing Kentuckians, her survival is certain evidence of a miracle, a guardian angel, of a girl whose purpose in life has yet to be fulfilled.
“It’s a God thing,” one woman said.
The crash site outside Kuttawa is on a little peninsula jutting out into Lake Barkley, in a neighborhood scattered with cottages, summer homes, and houseboats dry-docked under aluminum carports, interspersed with thick forest. Had the plane crashed a few hundred yards short of where it did, it would have gone into the lake, and 7-year-old Sailor would never have had a chance. A half-mile shorter, and she would have ended up on the Land Between the Lakes, a 170,000-acre nature preserve where there isn’t a person for miles this time of year.
Instead, the plane went down on this little peninsula on a wooded ridge, filled with fallen trees and thick briar patches—terrain hardly ever explored by anyone but loggers, hunters, and the hunted: deer, turkeys, and rabbits.
In the dark, after extracting herself from the upside-down airplane, Sailor did not see the logging road that would have led her to the highway. She plunged down the ridge into a hollow filled with thorns, up a second ridge, down into a briar patch even thicker than the first, up into a clearing, into a pasture, over a creek, through another pasture, across a barbed-wire fence, through another briar patch, and up to the house of Larry Wilkins, the man who called 911 and who cleaned the blood off Sailor with a washcloth as they waited for the ambulance.
“She saw the light on at Larry’s house,” said Todd Cruce, the owner of the land where the plane crashed. Cruce operates the Iron Hill Campground on the other side of the highway.
Wilkins, who lives on the backside of Kentucky presumably because he prefers a little privacy, suddenly became the fixation of news organizations everywhere, with reporters and camera crews converging on his lakeside bungalow by the dozen, it seemed to his neighbors. While Wilkins was happy to share his story, he grew tired of the fascination with him when a news crew knocked on his door at 4 a.m. After that, a friend told Wilkins to get some sleep and sat in the front room with a shotgun in his lap, ready to tell the next reporter to move along.
This reporter knocked at the Wilkins home on Tuesday morning but received neither an answer nor the business end of a shotgun. So I drove around the corner to the trailhead of the logging road that led back to the crash site. After the NTSB left with the wreckage, the owners dragged a log across the road to prevent people from nosing around, so I parked to get out and nose around on foot (with permission from the landowner).
After following the logging road back to the crash site, I jumped into the briar patch to retrace Sailor’s steps from the ridge-top to the back of the Wilkins home, nearly a mile away. For this re-enactment, it was broad daylight. I had on hiking shoes and a jacket appropriate for the weather. And still the briar patch was brutal. I broke a sweat; I bled a little. Even though I knew where Wilkins’s house was, I felt lost.
I am 6-foot-4, and my trip took 35 minutes. The time that lapsed between Sailor’s father’s last distress call to air traffic controllers and when the 7-year-old, barefoot in the dark and cold and rain, with a broken wrist, turned up on Wilkins’s porch was about 40 minutes, according to the Chicago Tribune. How could that be?
As I finally found the backside of the Wilkins property, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a white truck pulled into the driveway and drove down to meet me, I assumed to run me off with a shotgun. Instead, the man and woman in the truck wanted to know where the crash site was and whether would I show them. I told them it was back where I parked my car, so they offered me a ride.
That’s how I met Frank Hamilton and his wife, Donna, both of Marion, Kentucky, about 30 miles from Kuttawa. They were interested in coming to see where Sailor Gutzler crashed and survived because Frank had done some work on the Wilkins place a few years back and recognized the house from the TV news.
As he drove me back to the logging road, Frank told me about the area in his deep voice. He even had the look of a certain legendary country music singer—and then he removed all doubt: “When you write your story, tell them that you hitched a ride from a Johnny Cash tribute artist.”
And that’s the only part of this story that makes any sense.