PORTLAND, Ore. – As their mother lay dead in the middle of the night, a 4-year-old Oregon girl dragged her seriously injured younger sister from a crashed car and the two huddled under a blanket – and waited.
With the mangled car stuck deep in the woods, and no skid marks on the highway, the crash site was nearly impossible to detect.
In fact, authorities estimate the sisters were alone in the frigid woods for several hours early Wednesday as many motorists passed it by.
The children finally got help after two commercial fishermen spotted what appeared from a distance to be a basketball-sized gash in an alder tree along State Highway 401 between Astoria, Ore., and Naselle, Wash. Kraai McClure and Scott Beutler travel the two-lane road frequently and had a gut feeling something was wrong.
The men slowed down, discussed the situation and decided to turn around and go take a look. McClure said he called 911 to see if there had been any reports of a wreck during the night. There weren’t.
Beutler, who was a first responder when he lived in Mississippi, went into the brush and signaled McClure to alert authorities.
“I don’t know exactly what told us to turn around, but I’m just really thankful we did,” McClure said Thursday.
The men spotted the wrecked car a few hundred feet from the road. Nearby were the two young girls, scared and confused. “They could say their names but were totally in shock,” McClure said.
Washington State Patrol said the girls’ mother, 26-year-old Jessica Rath of Astoria, probably was asleep when she veered off the road and struck the tree shortly after midnight. She died at the scene.
McClure and Beutler discovered the crash site about 8:30 a.m.
The 2-year-old, who had serious leg injuries, was flown to a Portland hospital. The 4-year-old was treated at an Astoria hospital and released.
An Oregon Health & Science University spokeswoman confirmed the younger sister, Lylah Huff, was at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. The girls’ father, Keaton Huff, declined interview requests Thursday and asked the hospital not to release his daughter’s condition.
Trooper Russ Winger said investigators believe the 4-year-old, Aryanna Huff, pulled her sister from the vehicle and helped her to a spot about 20 feet away, where the fishermen found them. Winger said keeping warm with the blanket was vital with temperatures in the low 40s.
“She saved her sister,” McClure said. “She was sharp enough. I don’t know how she did it or anything else, but something was watching over those little girls.”
“Hypothermia sets in very quickly with something like that,” Winger said. “They could have very well not been found and died of exposure.”
Winger described the fishermen as heroes for acting on their hunch. McClure, however, gave the credit to Aryanna for helping Lylah out of the car and keeping her warm.
“It was amazing that the little 4-year-old – I have a little 4-year-old, too, she’s almost 5 – was able to get her little sister out and do that,” he added. “It just blows my mind that she could do that in that situation. I don’t know if she waited until morning, when they could see, but, you know, it just makes me want to cry.”
Winger said investigators have yet to determine how fast Rath was driving, or whether there were any other factors in the crash. The crime blotter in the Jan. 26 edition of The Longview Daily News indicates Rath was sentenced to 10 days in jail for heroin possession and third-degree theft.