Surviving girls recovering at hospital
In the smoldering wreckage of their downed plane, 4-year-old Grace Pearson and her 3-year-old sister, Lily, were burned and alone when they crawled onto the remains of an airplane seat and waited.
The bodies of their mother and uncle were still in the twin-engine Beechcraft that crashed in the northern Minnesota fog. Lily wanted to go home.
"We can't" her big sister told her, who comforted her in her arms.
"I protected her," Grace recalled Tuesday as she snuggled close to her father, Toby Pearson, at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
Rescue crews say it was a miracle when they found the girls alive five hours after the plane crashed Aug. 28 near Grand Marais.
"They have no explanation as to how the girls survived," Toby Pearson said. The crash killed his wife, Kathryn Pearson, and her brother-in-law, Charles Erickson, who was the pilot.
For now, Toby Pearson is focused on his daughters' survival. He smiled at Grace during Tuesday's news conference as she held a Halloween rag doll from the hospital's gift shop. Her hands and right foot are bandaged where the doctors used skin grafts to repair burns. Her left leg is in a pink cast.
"She keeps me grounded," Toby Pearson said.
Lily continues to undergo surgery to repair burns. She has a tube down her throat to help her breathe, and sometimes she squeezes her dad's finger.
"One morning, the tube was out," he said. "She woke up and said in her little raspy voice, 'Daddy,' That was a good day."
Labor Day weekend was supposed to mean a gathering for family and fishing at a lake on the Canadian border. The plane trip from Duluth to Grand Marais was to be a special treat, especially for Kathryn, who loved to fly. "It was supposed to be an exciting trip," Toby Pearson said.
He said he was at work in Duluth when he first learned the plane was missing. Then it was reported down.
"I just wanted to protect my kids," he said. "I was hoping for something. …; I knew it was unlikely that anyone could survive."
He said he's indebted to the rescue pilot who went up in search of his family on a day when one plane had already been lost in the fog. "It was nothing short of heroism," he said. "Rescue workers on the ground wouldn't have been able to find the site if he hadn't spotted it. Who knows what could have happened overnight?"
He said he still worries about what life will be like for his girls without their mother and about the psychological toll of the accident, which remains under investigation by transportation officials.
"I'll try to always be there for the girls," he said. "I'll take it day by day, hour by hour."
And he'll remember the line from the Winnie the Pooh movie that Grace has taken to repeating. "The character said: 'You're stronger than you think you are,"' he said. "Grace picked up on that and now she tells me: 'Dad, I'm stronger than you think I am."'