Piper Gutzler’s desk no longer holds her belongings in her fourth-grade classroom, but rather letters and pictures from her schoolmates. Similar remembrances found their way into her locker at the southern Illinois school on students’ first day back since the rural plane crash that killed Piper, her parents and a cousin while sparing her younger sister.
Counselors were on hand to help students process the weekend tragedy that has many people in the 3,200-resident town of Nashville grappling with grief.
The Gutzlers, a gregarious family who operated a local furniture business, were traveling home from a Florida vacation when their small place crashed in Kentucky. The only survivor was 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler, who - while bloodied and broken-boned - walked nearly a mile through the dark woods to find help.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of math and English taught today,” the school’s principal, Chuck Fairbanks, said Monday. “Today, in the long run, was a chance to do the best teaching our teachers could do: help these kids learn how to cope with something like this.”
The girls’ father, Marty Gutzler - a licensed commercial pilot and flight instructor - was piloting the Piper PA-34 when it crashed Friday night, killing his wife, Kim, along with 9-year-old Piper and her cousin, 14-year-old Sierra Wilder. Federal investigators are still trying to piece together what happened. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board could come as soon as next week.
Sailor Gutzler, who suffered a broken wrist, is now staying with relatives, attorney and family spokesman Kent Plotner said Tuesday. He declined to elaborate.
Sailor has not been seen publicly since she endured near-freezing temperatures, while dressed in shorts and T-shirt, during her trek through thick woods and briar patches. She eventually found the home of 71-year-old Larry Wilkins, who said the girl was crying and covered in blood when she told him her mother and father were dead.
“We’re all thinking about that poor, little girl and what she went through,” said Pat Povolish, who lives across the street from the Gutzlers. “She had to have had an angel guiding her.”
A funeral will be held Wednesday for her cousin, Sierra. Services will be held Friday for Gutzlers.
Marty Gutzler ran the furniture store his father began a half century ago in Nashville, which is about 50 miles east of St. Louis. His wife held down the fort at the family’s white, split-level home with a basketball hoop out front. It was a home that had been the gathering spot for the neighborhood’s kids, Povolish and other neighbors said.
“This is something the community can never prepare for, and there are no words to describe why something would happen to a family so beloved by our community,” the Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt, pastor of the Lutheran church that Marty Gutzler attended, said Tuesday.
Wilkins, whose home Sailor stumbled upon after the crash, said her grandparents told him on Tuesday that the girl’s physical injuries would heal, but that they didn’t speak of her emotional state.
“You can heal some wounds, but emotionally that’s just going to take some time,” said Wilkins, adding that he offered to attend the family’s funerals “if the little girl wanted me there.”
“She’s tough, that little girl is,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Bruce Schreiner contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.
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