02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
A freezing wind cut hard across Bob Gault's face as he searched the skies for some sign of his family. Around 7:20 p.m. on Feb. 8, he watched from the tiny airport on Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan as a chartered twin-engine turboprop plane—carrying his wife and three young children—came into view. "I noticed it was very low," says Gault, 43, a commission broker at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with a vacation home on the island. "It banked a little to the right, then it came back and banked to the left. Then they flew over, and I thought, 'They don't know where they're at. They're lost.' "
Gault figured that the overcast skies and poor visibility forced the plane's two pilots to head to a larger, better-lit airport in Charlevoix, Mich., 30 miles away. He was wrong. Two miles from the Beaver Island landing strip the small plane crashed in misty woods and split in three pieces, killing the two pilots and plunging Gault's wife, Mirth, 43, daughter Emma, 9, and sons Adam, 13, and Alec, 5—as well as the family mutt Barney and their macaw George—into a terrifying 15-hour ordeal. "I never would have thought someone could have survived that crash," says Rob McCaskey, 31, a Coast Guard pilot who was involved in rescue efforts. "So many things were against the family, and for them to come out of it as well as they did, it was unbelievable."
Those who know the Gaults say the family's uncommonly close bond had a lot to do with Mirth and the children surviving a long, cold night in the woods. "For both her and Bob, family is their whole life," says Sue Goacher, 50, a neighbor in the Gaults' upscale neighborhood in suburban Orland Park, Ill. With her own life in grave danger, "Mirth was very concerned about how Bob was feeling," says Goacher. "She told the kids to be strong to get back to their dad."
Normally the Gaults travel together to the three-bedroom lakefront vacation home they have owned for about five years on remote Beaver Island, a wooded, marshy, 55-square-mile outpost with only 450 year-round inhabitants. But this time Bob Gault left ahead of his family, to plow the road leading to their house and turn on the heat and hot water. Three days later at Chicago's Midway Airport, Mirth and the children boarded the nine-seat Merlin IV C for the 90-minute charter flight to Beaver Island, despite foggy skies and Mirth's fear of flying in small planes.
Her fears proved well-founded. With no control tower to guide him as he approached the island's airport, pilot Curtis Logan, 52, an experienced aviator with 7,000 hours of flight time, and copilot Stephen Ehrhart, 23, a recent college graduate, flew right past the unlit landing strip. Without warning, the plane skimmed along tree-tops before smashing into a stand of cedars and coming apart in the swampy woods. (The cause of the crash remains under investigation.) "It felt like we hit the runway, and then we turned over," says Adam, who, like the rest of his family, was strapped into his seat and dangling upside down. "The lights went out, and you couldn't see anything." Adam called out for the pilots and got no response. "I knew they were dead," he says. "But I knew we were all alive."
Fearing the smoldering wreckage would explode, Adam, who was only bruised, unbelted himself and rushed his brother out of the plane. Then he returned to help his mother free Emma, who was trapped in her seat just inches from where the plane had split. "She was whispering to my mom, saying who she wanted to tell that she loved, like she was going to die," says Adam. "Then I remembered my pocketknife that Mom had told me not to bring." He told his sister to suck in her stomach so he wouldn't hurt her, then cut her loose, slung her over his back and carried her under a tree. There the Gaults huddled in the pouring rain and 34° cold, chatting about school and singing Diana Ross songs to stay awake. Their misery was made worse by the howls of 15-year-old Barney, who had been thrown from the plane and soon died. "It was cold and scary," says Emma. "We didn't know if we were going to survive."
Two miles away at their vacation home, Bob Gault was anxiously phoning around for word on the plane, which he eventually learned was missing. At 2 a.m. the Coast Guard suspended rescue efforts until daybreak because of poor visibility. "They called and told me there wasn't much chance for survival at that point," says Gault, a licensed pilot who stopped flying at his wife's insistence after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death in 1999. "I just sat there and waited for the phone to ring."
The stranded Gaults, however, "never gave up hope," says Adam. Yet Mirth was so cold she worried she might die of hypothermia. "I didn't have a coat," she says, "and my arms were frozen." To help keep his mother warm, little Alec lay on top of her. "I opened my coat and put her under it like she was a baby," he says. Clinging to each other inside the wreckage to escape the driving rain, they heard a rescue chopper fly overhead, but its spotlight missed them by 25 feet.
Fortunately, the Gaults had a guardian angel. Paul Welke, 51, a local pilot, climbed into his twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander and braved the bad weather to help the Coast Guard when they resumed their search around 9:30 a.m. "I felt pretty morally obligated to do what I could do," says Welke, who for years has searched for missing planes and boats on his own. After only 30 minutes he spotted the fuselage; atop it, Mirth was frantically waving a life preserver. A Coast Guard helicopter soon arrived and dropped a basket to lift the Gaults to safety one by one. Not much later, snow blanketed the island. "Another half hour," says Gault, "and we wouldn't have found them until spring."
Besides the sad deaths of the two pilots, the only major injury was to Emma, who suffered four pelvis fractures and will be laid up for several weeks. One of these days the Gaults plan on going back to Beaver Island, only next time they'll take the ferry from Charlevoix. In the meantime, after getting a pass from his social studies teacher for missing an assignment because of the crash, Adam will have to do his homework. "He's getting everything he can out of this," says his proud father with a laugh. "He hit me up for a new paint-ball gun!" Something, under the circumstances, that Bob is only too happy to buy.
Lauren Comander in Orland Park and Trine Tsouderos in Charlevoix