When 16-year-old Autumn Veatch boarded a private plane in Montana, she texted her boyfriend, “If I die, remember that I love you.”
On July 11, the teen was preparing to leave Kalispell, Montana, where she was visiting her mother. Her step-grandparents, Leland and Sharon Bowman, offered to fly her back home to Bellingham, Washington, on their private plane, so she didn’t have to make the 9-hour drive.
“I was nervous,” Veatch tells PEOPLE. “I had never been on a private plane before.”
She sent her boyfriend another text to let him know where to pick her up, but it never went through.
The sky was overcast as they took off and conditions only got worse as they got closer to their destination. They couldn’t see out their windows and the GPS on their tablet shut off. Everyone on board started to panic.
“Grandpa decided to just fly up,” she says. “But right as he did that, we came crashing down.”
Struggling to Survive
All Autumn remembers seeing are trees. She says her skin was burning and she smelled fire.
“I got out of the plane as fast as I could,” Veatch says. “I was yelling to my grandparents, asking if they were okay. They were alive when we crashed. I tried pulling them out, but the fire was so bad. I couldn’t save them. I just kind of knew there was nothing I could do.”
Veatch had to get to safety, but she had no clue where she was.
“I was listening for a freeway, but everything sounds like a freeway when you’re panicking and listening for one,” she says. “I found a stream and followed it down because I remember water going downhill always leads to civilization.”
Soaking wet, she spent the daylight hours trekking through the forest, trying to remember every skill she learned from “survivor-type TV shows.”
Veatch remembers very clearly what was going through her mind as she struggled to find help.
“I kept thinking how much I regretted how negative I used to be about everything,” she says. “I was thinking of how upset I used to get over everything when this is what hardship really was.”
Veatch says that she has dealt with mental health issues throughout her life, but this experience put everything into perspective.
“I was pretty positive I was going to die, and I was thinking of all the times I had wished I was dead,” she says. “It made me regret ever feeling this way. It’s not like my problems will go away, but as I made my way down this stream, I just wanted to survive and be a better person.”
After two days of traveling, she found a bridge. At first she thought she was hallucinating, but it led her to Highway 20. She stood on the side of the road for an hour.
“No one pulled over,” she says. “I know I looked gross and beat up, but I was still very confused why no one was helping me. So I found this parking lot and finally someone finally came to my rescue.”
Life After the Crash
Veatch admits that although the incident has been widely reported, a lot of people haven’t seen how she is living her life now.
“After I got out of the hospital, I’ve wanted to be out and about and not wasting one minute of my time,” she says. “I went to a concert this past weekend with my boyfriend.”
They went to Father John Misty perform in Seattle.
She says she doesn’t want to waste a single moment of her life.
“I’ve been going out to eat a lot because I want to experience everything. I want to see this world,” she says. “I don’t want to die with not having experienced a lot.”
Veatch looks forward to being able to draw and paint again when her injured hand heals. Her friends also haven’t left her side.
She says she wants to work on her relationship with her mother, with whom she spent part of the summer.
“When she found out the plane was missing, she was so scared that I might have died before she had the chance to make things right between us,” she says. “I love my family and I know that even more now.”
Although she says she should be resting, Veatch has been on the go since the crash.
“I’m so afraid of my wasting my time now. I almost had everything taken away from me,” she says. “Every single picture I have drawn, every single person I have talked to, every relationship I have built, everything I have worked hard to buy. It was just about to all be nothing.”
Veatch, who will be a junior at Bellingham High School this fall, feels more alive than ever, but she says she “will never get on a private plane ever again.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up in Autumn’s name for those who wish to donate.
“There’s nothing like a plane crash to make you realize how mortal you are,” she says. “I will still have my struggles, but now when I’m having a hard time, I can just remember back to a time when I was so desperate to survive that I walked for days soaking wet and wanting nothing more than to be alive.”