Sailor Gutzler was dressed for the Florida sunshine, but the weather outside was anything but pleasant. It was an icy January evening, and at 1,800 feet above the ground, conditions were rough and visibility was poor. Then, somewhere over rural Kentucky, the light twin-engine aircraft began to struggle.
Marty Gutzler was an experienced pilot and flight instructor. He had flown this route many times before. As he radioed air traffic control, then, nothing could have been more important than the safety of his two daughters, wife and niece who were all travelling with him.
Air traffic control received the distress call at 5:55 p.m. “This is 291,” said the voice of Marty. “I have got problems… The engines are not producing power. I don’t what’s up… I have five on board…”
Air traffic control directed the plane to the nearest airport. “I see it. Okay,” said Marty on the approach. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on. I see the airport.” But moments later, radio contact was lost.
Just days earlier, the Gutzlers had been celebrating Christmas in sunny Key West, Florida. Travelling as a family, there was Marty and his wife Kim, their seven and nine-year-old daughters, Sailor and Piper, and their 14-year-old niece, Sierra Wilder.
They’d flown out from Mount Vernon, Southern Illinois to hang out with Marty’s son, Nick Brink, who was stationed at a local naval base. Together they saw in the New Year, and on January 2, 2015, they said goodbye to Nick and commenced the return trip that would end in tragedy…
The plane went down over the rugged woodlands of Kuttawa in Kentucky, forging a 300-foot path as it struck the earth and flipped. The left engine broke from the wing, and the right outboard fuel tank burst into flames. Everything went dark.
The plane was upside down when it came to standstill. Nobody spoke; nobody moved. Sailor looked at her mom and dad, her sister and her cousin, and hoped they were just sleeping. She tried to wake them, but they were gone.
Bloody and bruised, Sailor crawled out of the wreck. It was dark outside, and the temperature was close to freezing. Jolts of pain emanated from her wrist, broken in the impact. Meanwhile, a small fire burned from the ruptured fuel tank and illuminated the crash site.
Sailor was not prepared for the Kentucky winter. She was not wearing any shoes, just a single sock. She did not know where she was or where to get help. Above all, she was injured and alone in the wilderness, her family dead.
Sailor’s father had, though, taught her some survival skills. She searched for a stick to use as a burning torch but found none. Instead, she set off into the darkness of the undergrowth in search of help.
The terrain was rough, the forest dense and thorny. Sailor struggled through the dark, clambering across a river creek, a 12-foot ditch and two embankments. She walked and walked. Finally, after almost a mile, she glimpsed the light of a house.
Larry Wilkins, 71, opened his front door to find seven-year-old Sailor stood there with a bloody nose and bleeding legs. “Honey, what can I do for you?” he said. Traumatized and alone, she asked if she could stay.
“Her voice was quivering,” Larry later told NBC news. “She told me her mom and dad were dead and she was in a plane crash and the plane was upside down… I felt so sorry for her, tears come to my eyes.”
Larry took Sailor inside, telephoned the emergency services and started cleaning the blood off her with a cloth. Soon after, she was taken to hospital. Fortunately, none of her injuries were life-threatening and she went on to make a full recovery.
“I’ve got an eight-year-old child myself,” said Lieutenant White of the Kentucky State Police to local broadcaster KFVS. “And when I saw this [what] appeared to be a seven-year-old child that walked through this dense forest, through some really tough terrain, awful poor weather conditions – and survive this, it’s just really a miracle.”
Meanwhile, in the remote Kentucky woods, emergency crews fought to locate the wrecked airplane and “hopefully salvage the lives of those that were on board,” said Lieutenant White. “But, ultimately, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
In the following days, a spokesperson for the family issued the following statement: “The Gutzler family mourns the loss of Marty, Kim and Piper Gutzler and Sienna Wilder. We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God’s loving arms. Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler.”
News of the accident spread and reached the Gutzlers’ hometown of Nashville, Illinois. Patrick Povolish, 61, a friend of the family told the St Louis Post Dispatch, “This is a small community where everybody knows everybody and this will be devastating for the whole town.”
Sailor’s life will never be the same, but her survival is the only silver lining in this dark tragedy. Since leaving Kentucky, she has returned to Illinois and is now living under the guardianship of her half-sister, Kasie Dlubala. In time, hopefully, she will heal.