Two days had passed since I the single-prop Cessna, 1 hobbled by stormy weather, had clipped a mountain ridge south of Montana's Glacier National Park, broken apart and burst into flames. One day had passed since the family of Matthew Ramige, 29, had received the tragic news: All five people aboard the plane—Matthew, three of his U.S. Forest Service colleagues and the pilot—had died, four perishing in what Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont called a "total cremation." Now, Matthew's mother, Wendy Becker, and his uncle Jonathan Becker sat in an Internet cafe in Kalispell, Mont., e-mailing friends and preparing an obit. "This woman from the Forest Service walked in and quietly said something to Wendy," says Jonathan, 44. "I saw Wendy's expression change to a look of shock. I thought, 'What could possibly be worse than the news of my nephew's death?'" But the news was nothing short of miraculous: Matthew and his colleague Jodee Hogg, 23, were alive.

By then both survivors were headed for Kalispell Regional Medical Center, Ramige to be treated for a fractured spine and burns covering 20 percent of his body, Hogg for back and ankle damage and burns on her hands and legs. Stunned officials could not fathom how the injured pair had managed to navigate miles of steep mountainous passages, let alone survive the crash and fire. "One hundred miles an hour to zero in 40 feet, and then a fireball," Dupont marvels. "The odds of survival—you don't even want to go there." But Hogg and Ramige—who were part of a group conducting routine vegetation inventory—both had extensive wilderness training, and those who know them were not altogether surprised. "You could drop those kids in the middle of the woods, and they'd figure out how to walk right out of it," says Michael Wilson, their Forest Service supervisor. "They know how to survive."

Later Hogg would tell officials that the trouble began 15 minutes after lifting off from a Kalispell airport on Sept. 20. Dupont concluded that veteran pilot Jim Long was trying to avoid a cloud-shrouded ridge when the Cessna swiped an outcropping of rock and broke into pieces. By the time it came to rest upside down, it had burst into flames—with all five people inside, Hogg opened a door and tumbled into the snow. "She turns around, reaches for Matthew, and his foot was caught," says Dupont. "She was pulling on him and got him out." Long, meanwhile, unbuckled Ken Good, 58, and pushed him out. By then the fire was roaring. Long, 60, and Davita Bryant, 32, never exited the craft.

To shield Good, who was severely injured, Hogg and Ramige assembled a crude shelter from plane fragments. Then, with no food to eat, the three huddled together as the temperature dipped into the 20s. But by morning, Good had died. Around 8 a.m., fearing they would freeze to death if they remained still, Hogg and Ramige positioned the red doors and engine cowling in the white snow to attract searchers and then set off. They hoped their trail of footprints through the snow would lead rescuers to them. With Ramige falling several times because of his back injury and burns, it took them all day to traverse an incline of dense brush before settling beneath a tree for the night. "Jodee helped Matt every inch of the way," says Dupont. "She's a remarkable woman."

After noon the next day, in their 29th hour of walking, they hit Highway 2. Hogg flagged down two motorists and said, "My partner Matt needs medical attention." Fifteen minutes later Ramige headed to a hospital in a chopper. Paramedic Lance Westgard says that Hogg wanted only to talk to her parents. When she told another paramedic, "They probably think I'm dead," he responded, "Well, yeah."

Later, Hogg and Ramige learned that hundreds of Forest Service employees and friends had been ready to assist in the search. But because of the cloud cover, rescue workers didn't discover the crash site until about six hours after the pair had left. By then the snow—and footprints—had melted, and the doors and cowling blended in with the rest of the wreckage. Without any standard clues such as markers or stones, they concluded that an uncharred piece of wood in the plane had been blown there by the wind. (In fact, Hogg and Ramige had tried unsuccessfully to start a fire to keep Good alive.) Rescue workers focused on the charred remains and Good's body, which they assumed had been ejected upon impact. Only during the removal of the bodies from the plane on Sept. 23—after Hogg and Ramige had been found—did they spot three unbuckled seatbelts. Later, Good's son Bradley, 25, would say, "We truly believe [the sheriff's department] did everything they could." But Ramige's grandmother Clara Becker, 77, voices anger that rescuers were "emphatic that there were no survivors."

Ramige remains in a Seattle ICU unit, where he spends his days joking and listening to jazz great Thelonious Monk. On Sept. 27 he turned 30; the same day, he underwent skin-graft surgery. The prior afternoon, Hogg, in a wheelchair, attended a memorial service for Long, Bryant and Good. She has since returned home to Billings, where she is expected to fully recover. Former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas, who taught Hogg at the University of Montana, predicts she will put this tragedy behind her. "She'll have a great career because of her dedication to people and her work," he says. "She's a can-do person." And a very lucky one, at that.

Jill Smolowe. Ken Lee in Kalispell, Keith Raether in Missoula, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City and Melissa Schorr in Seattle

  • Contributors:
  • Ken Lee,
  • Keith Raether,
  • Cathy Free,
  • Melissa Schorr.