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Sudden Orphans: How Sole Survivors Reclaimed Their Lives

Megan Pierce was 16 when she survived a car accident in Delaware in 2009 that killed her parents and younger brother. She is about to graduate college and hopes to become a teacher. Killed in the crash were her father, Brett Pierce, mother Alison Pierce and 12-year-old brother Jimmy Pierce. Courtesy of Megan Pierce

Megan Pierce remembers only fragments of the October 2009 crash that left her an orphan at 16. A sunrise car ride with her parents and younger brother. An intersection. The inside of a rescue chopper. A man telling her she was the only survivor. An empty house in Wilmington, Delaware, where she crawled into her brother's bed and cried.

An uncle took her in. Then an aunt. They loved her, but she felt like a visitor, and that no one understood her grief. But she gradually found her way forward — to live in a way that would have made her lost family proud.

If she could, that's what Pierce would tell Sailor Gutzler, the 7-year-old girl who last week walked away from a Kentucky plane crash that killed the rest of her family. Pierce would also tell the relatives who will raise Sailor not to treat her as a sympathy case, but to love her unconditionally, like a daughter — especially on the days when she may scream and break down crying. "It isn't necessarily anything they (the guardians) did," Pierce (pictured at the top of this story) said. "It's just that she lost everybody."

This is what it's like for a child’s family to be taken in an instant. It happens in myriad ways — plane crash, car wreck, flood, storm, shooting. There’s no roadmap for what happens next. Survivors who’ve successfully navigated into adulthood cite three essentials that caregivers should provide: love, stability, security.

Image: Wendy Reynolds Buckley was 5 when she survived a 1973 car crash in Illinois that killed her parents and 1-year-old sister
Wendy Reynolds Buckley was 5 when she survived a 1973 car crash in Illinois that killed her parents and 1-year-old sister. She’s now a lawyer in California and speaks frequently about her ordeal. Courtesy of Wendy Reynolds Buckley

“Cling to them with every bit of strength you have,” said Wendy Reynolds Buckley, who survived a 1973 Illinois car crash, caused by a drunk driver, that killed her parents and younger sister. She was 5 at the time. She was later raised by her maternal grandparents. “A child has to know they’re not going to lose them.”

Reynolds Buckley said she grew up feeling like she had to live the lives of four people — hers and those of her dead family. “It’s a pretty hefty burden. I imagine that is what this 7-year-old girl will have to carry.”

Her grandparents encouraged her to do what she could to curtail drunk driving. So when she was 16 she began speaking publicly about her ordeal. She also pushed herself to get straight As, and attend a top-tier college. She did, and became a prosecutor in northern California. She married and had two kids. She’s been to therapy, on and off, and still experiences emotional downturns. She endured a spell when she reached the ages of her parents, and when her children turned 5. Catharsis has always come from speaking about it.

Suddenly Orphaned: Adjusting to it Takes Time 0:37

She continues to speak against drunk driving, and is now an estate planner (her parents didn’t leave a will, and her family was riven by a custody battle). But she knows she could have easily gone the other direction, and done little, and no one would have blamed her. “That’s the sort of thing that happens to a person like me: you can fall off the edge or take life by the horns,” Reynolds Buckley, now 46, said.

That is why it will be so important for Sailor to live her life with meaning, Reynolds Buckley said. “What was the purpose of this girl living? She’s got a purpose. She has to find out what it is.”

Pierce believes she has found her purpose. Now 22, she’s majoring in elementary education at the University of Delaware, where she’ll graduate this year. She, too, finds comfort in sharing her story.

“I always wanted to do big things. I had big dreams. I almost gave up. But I’m really happy. I’m about to graduate with a bachelor’s of science and start my own life.”