Little girls survive deadly car crash

<p>Two small toys and a child’s boot sit on the root of a tree Thursday afternoon, which was struck during the fatal car crash by Jessica Rath the previous day. Rath’s two young daughters survived the crash and waited near the wreck for hours before being found.</p>

By KEVIN HEIMBIGNER

kheimbigner@chinookobserver.com

KNAPPTON — A new basketball-size scar on an alder tree. A bit of litter off the roadway. Those were just enough clues for Kraai McClure and Scott Beutler to miraculously save the lives of sisters 4-year-old Aryanna Rath and 2-year-old Lylah Huff. They were passengers in a car crash that had killed their mother and driver, Jessica Marie Rath, 26, of Astoria, possibly as long as eight hours before their rescue.

Aryanna was released from the hospital last Wednesday. Lylah was released on Sunday. She is reported to have suffered a broken leg and other “pretty serious injuries,” a Washington State Patrol spokesman said last week.

“We gotta check this out,” Beutler told McClure and they both agreed at about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday. McClure, who also has daughters 2 and 4 years old, said to Beutler, “It will only take a second, let’s turn around.” They were driving southbound from Naselle to the Warrenton harbor, where they were going to do repairs on one of their two commercial fishing boats.

They had both spotted a fresh scar on a tree’s bark near where State Route 401 makes a sharp curve to the left before it descends down Knappton Hill. “We talked it over and I called 911 to see if there had been any accidents in that area. The dispatch said there hadn’t been. We turned around the first place we could and went back up the hill,” McClure stated.

“I was scared when I saw the dark green car all crumpled up back in the woods. It was really hard to see from the road, but I did see a lady slumped over the steering wheel and she was not moving. I was definitely not mentally prepared for that. Scott, who is a first responder, was better able to deal with what was going on and he said he’d wave if he needed my help,” McClure said. The wreckage of the 2007 dark blue-green Dodge Caliber was about 70 yards off the highway and was not visible from the road.

“From my experience as a first responder, it looked like an accident scene. I went in to assess the scene and spotted the badly wrecked car. I checked for vitals on the woman and there were none, no vital signs,” Beutler said. She was wearing her seatbelt.

Children involved

“Then I saw a child’s booster seat jammed between the dashboard and the windshield on the passenger side and I thought, ‘Oh my God, please don’t let there be children involved in this,’” Beutler said.

“I couldn’t see anyone else in the car so I turned back to the road and that’s when I saw two little girls off to the right and huddled under a blanket in the woods. I asked, ‘Are you babies OK?’ and then the oldest said, “I want my mommy, I just want my mommy,’” Beutler said.

The oldest was shivering uncontrollably, while the younger girl had stopped shivering. “From my training I knew the oldest was suffering from signs of hypothermia because of her shivering, but the younger girl was in a more advanced stage of hypothermia because she had stopped shaking. I let her put my sweatshirt on,” Beutler said.

“About that time the (Washington) State Patrol came on scene and the (Naselle) ambulance was there in good time right afterwards. I began helping with stretchers and stuff from the ambulance and putting out flares. It was a tear-jerker to see the little girls leave in the ambulance. My girls’ mother has a dark green car also. I have little girls the exact same ages and I’m a commercial fisherman like I found out their dad is. It was too much for me to handle. I spent most of the rest of Wednesday talking with a friend and then I was awake at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get what had happened out of my mind,” McClure said Thursday.

“I didn’t go into the woods to see the car because I knew what was in there. I have to admit I get scared when I’m out hunting and end up having to walk in the woods after dark. The little girls’ eyes were wide open with fright. I could hear them crying and that was a blow I could feel in my stomach. It was pretty incredible that they could survive, especially when I could see how mangled the car was. The rest of the day I was moving just like I was a puppet,” McClure said.

Emergency response

The WSP trooper first on scene was Brandon Kesler of the Naselle Detachment. A nurse, Cathy Scalzo, on her way to work also happened upon the scene and she gave assistance before the ambulance arrived. A Naselle Volunteer Fire Department ambulance transported the two girls to Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria where they were united with their dad, Keaton Huff. The little girls were life-flighted to OHSU (Oregon Health Science University Hospital) according to Columbia Memorial Hospital Marketing Director Paul Mitchell.

“Both little girls were very cold and hypothermic and both had obvious injuries. The younger little girl seemed to be hurt the worst. I thought I recognized the little girls and this was one of the few times I have even been emotional at a scene. The temperatures were in the low 40s and I don’t know how much longer they could have survived,” ambulance director and EMT Bert Haven said.

“There were just light tracks where the car went straight off the road and there was no sign of skidding or turning. It looked like the driver had fallen asleep and instead of making the curve just went straight off the road,” McClure surmised. The WSP report agreed with the supposition that Rath had likely fallen asleep. She had been wearing a seat belt.

“It took me a minute to see the little girls. They were about 20 feet from the car and off the trail the car had made going in. I have no idea how the older girl was able to get herself and her sister out of the car in the dark. At first I thought the wreck had just happened, but I learned later that it could have been up to eight hours before. It had been daylight for at least a couple of hours, but the little girls had stayed huddled together instead of coming to the road to get help,” McClure said.

A misunderstanding

In the cruelest of ironies, Rath had received a call that her husband was coming into shore from his commercial fishing vessel and that he would be in at Warrenton. However, Rath had misunderstood and thought he would be arriving some 90 miles north in Westport, Wash. According to police reports, Rath had telephoned her husband after midnight as she headed back to the family home in Astoria and the accident likely occurred within an hour or so of that phone call.

Haven said the Naselle Fire Department planned to discuss the accident. “Several people felt guilty because they had driven by the accident and did not notice it. The tree had a 6-foot gash in it, but only part of it was visible from the road. There is no way anyone should feel guilty,” Haven said.

Next of kin was notified by Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson’s office. WSP officers investigated the scene eight miles south of Naselle at mile post 5 on State Route 401 throughout Thursday. It was unknown if the children had been wearing safety restraints.

McClure is 35 and an Ilwaco High School graduate and Beutler is 32 and a graduate of Buras High School in Louisiana. Both have been almost overwhelmed with news media interest in the case in the intervening days. News outlets as far away as London, England, have shown intense fascination with the rescue.

“I wish the little girls’ dad the best. I’d like to talk with him if that would help. Oh boy, I sure hugged my two girls (Ashlee is 4, Kirra is 3) when I saw them yesterday. All the similarities — this hit too close to home for me,” McClure said.

“I just wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped?” McClure asked in the quiet voice of a young father, still filled with emotion.

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