‘Divine intervention’: How a young plane crash survivor found safety

Salvage workers bring out part of a Piper PA-34's fuselage, wing, and landing gear from a crash site in Kuttawa, Ky. in January. The crash killed four family members and left a 7-year-old girl injured.
(Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press)

Flying wasn’t something that filled Marty Gutzler with fear, if the photos the pilot had posted to Facebook last week were any indication.

A father and husband, he’d taken a grinning selfie of himself in the pilot’s seat of a small plane, headset on, as two young girls fiddled with crayons and a basketball in the back seats.

“If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it!” read a meme Gutzler, 48, of Nashville, Ill., posted Dec. 28. The phrase would come to have a tragic new resonance for Gutzler’s family less than a week later.


No one knows yet exactly what went wrong on Gutzler’s final flight Friday night, a matter the National Transportation Safety Board has begun investigating.

A pilot, probably Gutzler, radioed a distress call to aviation authorities to request an emergency landing at a nearby airfield in western Kentucky.

But his Piper PA-34-200T never made it. On board were Gutzler, his wife, Kimberly Gutzler, 46, daughters Piper, 9, and Sailor, 7, and the girls’ cousin Sierra Wilder, 14, all returning to Illinois from Key West, Fla.

The twin-engine plane came to a rest upside down in a wooded swath of rural Kuttawa, Ky., in Lyon County.

It was cold and dark, and the crash site reeked of fuel, searchers said later, noting there was evidence of a small, post-impact fire.

Out of this scene, a single figure had emerged: Gutzler’s younger daughter, Sailor, who managed to free herself from the craft despite an apparent broken wrist.

The plane had come down about six miles east of Kentucky Dam State Park Airport. Not a light could be seen from where Sailor stood, officials said later.

She would tell officials that she thought about lighting a stick from the fire created by the crash to make a little light, but no stick could be found.

So Sailor, still dressed for Florida’s warm weather, set out shoeless, in shorts and in a short-sleeved shirt, in the 38-degree cold to find help for her family, hoping they were just unconscious, officials said later.

She passed through brambles, ditches and fallen hickory trees in the darkness.

In less than half an hour, Sailor saw the lights of Larry Wilkins’ home and made her way to his porch.

Stunned, Wilkins, 71, took in the teary-eyed child, put her on his couch and called 911. His two dachshunds, Pete and Bonnie, helped comfort her until police arrived 10 minutes later with an ambulance to treat her injuries, which included scratches on her arms and legs, he said Saturday.

Kentucky State Police Lt. Brent White was the second officer to arrive at Wilkins’ house, and at a televised news conference Sunday, said he was struck by how “amazingly calm” Sailor seemed.

Wilkins had helped clean up some of the girl’s injuries, and although she was “probably in shock,” White said, Sailor was able to provide remarkable detail on what had happened to her and where she had come from.

Even more remarkable than Sailor’s composure, White said, was the path that she had chosen through the woods to Wilkins’ house.

“We were talking about that being some divine intervention there, because she absolutely went to probably the nearest house that she could have,” White said of his conversations with other rescuers, also noting that the path was nonetheless a hard one. “It was still a considerable feat for her to do that.”

For the next two hours, their flashlights hampered by the mist, searchers from Lyon County and beyond scoured the woods near Wilkins’ home before Lyon County Sheriff Kent Murphy found the crash site, White said.

Aerial footage showed a tattered white plane with half a wing broken off and a bent tail.

The bodies of Marty, Kimberly, and Piper Gutzler and Sierra Wilder were inside the plane, secured in their restraints and possibly braced for impact, said White. He was unsure why Sailor had been able to survive.

Officials assigned a Kentucky State Police trooper to stay with Sailor until she left Kentucky. White said Sunday a woman in Sailor’s family -- possibly a stepsister -- came to Kentucky and met Sailor shortly before the girl was discharged from the hospital.

“She is one remarkable young lady,” NTSB investigator Heidi Moats said at a Sunday news conference.

On Sunday, NTSB investigators began their first day investigating and trying to collect perishable evidence from the crash site before the plane is taken away for further examination.

Moats said the NTSB would issue a preliminary report in about 10 days, but that the conclusion of the investigation would take considerably longer.

For friends and relatives of the Gutzlers, the grief and healing has also only just begun.

“We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God’s loving arms,” family spokesman Kent L. Plotner said in a statement. “Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler.”

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Times staff writer Javier Panzar contributed to this report.