Matthew Ramige knew immediately how lucky he was in the moments after the small plane he was riding in crashed into the Montana wilderness a month ago.
And to hear him tell it, he was just as lucky that he wasn’t the only one to still be alive.
Two people onboard were killed. Two others survived — including 23-year-old Jodee Hogg, who Ramige said helped him escape from the smoldering wreckage.
“My right boot was lodged on something, and her strength jostled me free and if it weren’t for her I don’t know if I could have gotten out of the plane by myself,” he said Wednesday, a month after the Sept. 20 crash near Glacier National Park, where the Forest Service workers were being ferried to conduct an annual vegetation inventory and repair telecommunication facilities.
Considering where they were, cheating death on impact was just the beginning of Ramige’s struggle to survive.
Burned hands and a broken back
Looking down, Ramige saw that his hands were badly burned and his clothing was charred and in tatters. His back was broken — a compression fracture. Hogg had suffered a sprained foot and back.
“I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was just glad that I survived and amazed that I had survived,” he said. “It’s like being given a second chance, and gaining a new perspective on life. I think anyone who has been close to death would say the same thing.”
That first snowy, windy night, Hogg and passenger Ken Good, who also made it out of the plane, made a “Matt sandwich,” holding him to protect him, he said. Good was a big man and his body provided heat for all of them, Ramige said.
By the next morning, Good was dead — and no rescuers had arrived.
But there was another stroke of luck: Despite his injuries, Ramige could still walk.
“I felt like Jodee and I had to take action rather than wait for uncertain rescue,” he said. “We knew which way we needed to hike out, so we took action and made it happen.”
The 30-year-old donned the dead man’s flight jacket and the two began their hike out of Montana’s rugged Great Bear-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Ground crews reached the burned wreckage later that day but found no signs of the survivors and believed all aboard had perished.
Along the way, Ramige had to lie awkwardly on his stomach to drink water from streams, then somehow get back up. When he wanted nothing more than to stop and rest, Ramige says Hogg kept him going.
Huddling for warmth
“I don’t know if I could have done it by myself,” Ramige, 30, told reporters Wednesday. He said the two huddled together for warmth and got some sleep the second night.
Ramige’s family, meanwhile, had been told by authorities that he was certainly dead. Relatives had even begun making funeral preparations while he and Hogg were traveling some three to five miles over rough terrain, a painful journey that would take them 29 hours.
“The first real recognition that we were going to make it was when we heard a train — there’s Amtrak that goes through there along Highway 2 — and we knew basically where we were and that it was only a few miles to go,” he said. “Then we made it to the road and it was official that we were going to be all right.”
After they flagged down motorists, Ramige was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Kalispell, Mont., and then transferred to Harborview in Seattle, the region’s burn center. Hogg was treated at a hospital in Kalispell.
Walking stiffly, Ramige wore a back brace and treatment gloves Wednesday, five days after being released. He underwent two skin-graft surgeries for burns on his chest, right thigh and right hand during his 25-day hospital stay.
The Jackson, Wyo., native will travel to Montana and then to his mother’s home in Albany, N.Y., to complete his recovery.
Cause of crash remains under investigation
Ramige has spoken with investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Forest Service. The NTSB report on what caused the crash will take six months to complete, a spokeswoman said.
Contract pilot Jim Long, 60, of Kalispell, and Forest Service employee Davita Bryant, 32, of Whitefish, Mont., died in the fire that resulted from the crash, authorities said. Good, 58, also a Forest Service employee from Whitefish, died from burns, injuries and shock.
Ramige doesn’t know if he will return to his job with the Forest Service; he does know he won’t fly in another small plane.
“Just watching my family and friends show so much support and love ... it makes me want to reach out to other people in my life and give back,” he said. “I know I’ll never be the same after living through something like this.”