His back broken, his body burned and the ordeal of surviving a plane crash just two days behind him, Forest Service worker Matthew Ramige was already joking with nurses and calling for milkshakes.
For his mother — who was first told he was dead, only to learn the next day that he had emerged from the wilderness with a fellow survivor — Ramige’s surfacing sense of humor was helping the joyous news to finally sink in.
“Now that I’ve had a chance to talk with him — he’s joking with the nurses and asking for milkshakes and ginger ale — I’m starting to believe it,” said Ramige’s mother, Wendy Becker of Albany, N.Y.
Despite his injuries, Ramige and Forest Service colleague Jodee Hogg walked 2½ miles to safety from the spot south of Glacier National Park where their plane crashed and burned Monday. The other three occupants were killed in the crash.
Authorities initially reported that there were no survivors.
Ramige's father told NBC's "Today" show that he didn't initially believe it when he was told his son had survived. He also recalled seeing his son for the first time after the crash. "He didn't look like Matt," Bob Ramige said, referring to the burns. "He was in a lot of pain."
Obituary had been planned
Becker told a Thursday news conference at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where her son was being treated, that family members had gathered in Kalispell, Mont., to make arrangements and grieve.
“We were putting together his obituary,” she said.
Dr. David Heimbach said Ramige, 29, of Jackson, Wyo., was badly hurt but should fully recover and could be back to work by spring. He was listed in serious condition.
Ramige was flown to Harborview’s burn unit after he and Hogg, 23, of Billings, Mont., made their way off a mountain and through forest to reach a highway. A hospital helicopter picked them up. Hogg was in stable condition Thursday at Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Montana.
The single-engine aircraft under contract to the Forest Service, carrying a pilot and four Forest Service workers, left Kalispell Monday afternoon on a 30-minute flight to a grass landing strip in the Great Bear-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, south of Glacier National Park.
It crashed during stormy weather above timberline in the mountains, but three of those aboard managed to get out of the burning wreckage — Hogg, Ramige and Ken Good, 58, of Whitefish, Mont.
Good died of his injuries in the night. Killed in the crash were pilot Jim Long, 60, of Kalispell, and Davita Bryant, 32, of Whitefish.
Heimbach said Ramige and Hogg endured temperatures that fell to 20 degrees by huddling together to stay warm. They initially stayed by the wreckage hoping for rescue, but decided to walk out when no one arrived, he said.
Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont said in Montana that the pair apparently chose to stay with Good as long as he was alive. “I guess when he passed away and it became light out, they decided we better get the hell out of here,” the sheriff said.
Dupont told "Today" that he was at the crash site when he received a cell phone call that Ramige and Hogg had survived. "I thought it was a crude hoax," he said.
Fire had 'melted everything'
Dupont said the aircraft went from more than 100 mph to zero in less than 40 feet.
“Who can survive that?” he asked. The fire “literally melted everything.” Aside from Good’s body near the wreckage, the crash was so devastating that responders could not even accurately count bodies, he said.
Undersheriff Chuck Curry said he searched, but failed to find any sign that anyone survived the crash.
“There were no footprints leaving the site, no piled rocks, no written message — nothing indicating someone had survived or left the area,” Curry said Thursday.
Ramige, who will be at Harborview for about a month, was in intense pain during his trek out, Heimbach said.
“His biggest trouble was trying to bend over to get some water out of the streams,” he said.
The doctor said Ramige will be treated for a lower spine fracture with a brace. “He’s got no paralysis and that’s quite stable. I think he’s an incredibly lucky young man, and tough as nails.”
Ramige suffered burns on his face, chest, thigh and both hands, and will require some skin grafts, the doctor said.
Becker noted that Monday is her son’s 30th birthday. “He’s going to see 30,” she said with wonder in her voice.