After the small Beechcraft plane they were in crashed into the Minnesota wilderness, 4-year-old Grace Pearson clung to her 3-year-old sister, Lily, and kept her clear of the smoldering wreckage where their mother and uncle had perished.
"We were a little bit scared of the accident, and I took good care of my sister," Grace Pearson said at a news conference at a St. Paul, Minn., hospital, where she told her amazing survival story Wednesday with help from her dad.
"Yes, you did," said her father, Toby Pearson. "What did you do?"
"I protected her," Grace said.
The Aug. 28 plane crash occurred around 11 a.m. near Grand Marais, Minn., on the shores of Lake Superior. The girls' mother, Kathryn Ann Pearson, 36, and their uncle, Charles William Erickson, 55, were declared dead at the scene.
The group had set out from Duluth, Minn., and Erickson had been piloting the plane toward Grand Marais in thick fog when the crash happened. Doctors say it is nothing short of a miracle that the girls survived.
"There is no medical explanation for their survival," said Dr. David Ahrenholz, associate medical director at Regions Hospital Burn Center, where the sisters are still recovering.
A Good Prognosis
The girls were both burned in the crash and subsequent fire. Lily suffered third-degree burns on her arms, legs and right side of her face, and has been breathing with the help of a tube. She has undergone surgeries for the burns, and more treatment is expected. Grace suffered third-degree burns on her hands and a broken leg in the crash
But the prognosis for both of the children is good. Grace is credited with keeping herself and her sister away from the smoldering plane and its toxic smoke.
Grace said that she knew her mother and her uncle were dead. But she kept Lily away from the wreckage. The little girls rested on the remains of a seat from the plane while rescue crews searched for them for five hours.
"We just waited and took a rest on the seat," Grace said.
Focusing on a Miracle
The search for the plane began when Federal Aviation Administration notified the local sheriff's department shortly after 11 a.m. that the aircraft was missing. A local pilot was able to get into the air briefly during a break in the weather, and spotted the wreckage in a wooded area outside of Grand Marais at about 4 p.m.
The plane had been headed toward Grand Marais, and from there, the family was planning to take a car trip to their annual Labor Day weekend reunion at a lake on the Canadian border where they would meet Toby Pearson.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
For now, Toby Pearson says he is focused on the miracle that saved his daughters.
"The tragedy of the loss is difficult to deal with … but at the same time the miraculous survival is amazing," he said.
He says that Grace is giving him the strength to help his family move on.
"She keeps me grounded," he said. "She brings me back to what it's all about, and the need to keep moving forward."