Falling Through Clouds: A Story of Survival, Love, and Liability

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"Mommy burned up."

On a cloudy day in August 2003, Grace and Lily Pearson, 4 and 3, were flying in their uncle's plane along with their mother on their way to their grandpa's birthday party near Lake Superior, when Lily noticed the trees out the window were growing close; so close she could almost touch them. Before the trees tore into the cabin, Grace had the strange sensation of falling through clouds.

A story of tragedy, survival, and ...

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Falling Through Clouds: A Story of Survival, Love, and Liability

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"Mommy burned up."

On a cloudy day in August 2003, Grace and Lily Pearson, 4 and 3, were flying in their uncle's plane along with their mother on their way to their grandpa's birthday party near Lake Superior, when Lily noticed the trees out the window were growing close; so close she could almost touch them. Before the trees tore into the cabin, Grace had the strange sensation of falling through clouds.

A story of tragedy, survival, and justice, Damian Fowler's Falling Through Clouds is about a young father's fight for his family in the wake of a plane crash that killed his wife, badly injured his two daughters, and thrust him into a David-vs-Goliath legal confrontation with a multi-billion dollar insurance company. Blindsided when he was sued in federal court by this insurance company, Toby Pearson made it his mission to change aviation insurance law in his home state and nationally, while nursing his daughters to recovery and recreating his own life. Falling Through Clouds charts the dramatic journey of a man who turned a personal tragedy into an important victory for himself, his girls, and many other Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Sarah Smiley

This story had my heart from the first page, and it has stayed with me since. For anyone who has ever suffered through any sort of tragedy, this story reminds us that beauty often rises up from despair. It is beautifully written and gripping from start to finish.
Patrick Smith

Falling Through Clouds is a story of unthinkable pain and loss. Yet ultimately it's the story of survival -- a harrowing testament to human love, strength and resilience.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of the plane crash that tragically broke apart one family and set up some disturbingly complex insurance and liability issues. In his nonfiction debut, magazine journalist Fowler pieces together the compelling story of Minnesota native Toby Pearson and his unfortunate ties to the crash of a noncommercial airplane that went down in the vast woodlands near Lake Superior. That small aircraft was carrying Pearson's wife and two daughters. Although his wife died in the crash, his daughters miraculously survived, albeit with life-changing burn injuries and trauma that would burden them the rest of their lives. As the bills for his daughters' injuries mounted, Pearson was faced with the possibility of his insurance company not paying out for his daughters' injuries, and he became embroiled in a labyrinthine mess of a legal situation that can be traced all the way back to the pilot of the downed plane having initially given fraudulent insurance information, a misstep that had the potential to make Pearson's already difficult situation a lot worse. What's more, now Pearson faced a significant battle with a multibillion-dollar insurance company. Fowler does a meticulous job of getting readers acquainted with Pearson and his family and providing a solid account of their lives before and after the crash. He manages to solidify the personal angle of the Pearsons' harrowing story while also using this as an entry point into a larger investigation into both lax aviation safety standards in the private/noncommercial field and questions of who is liable for what damage according to the insurance industry. The author's maintenance of this balance between the more delicate intimacies of Toby Pearson's post-crash family life and the more reportorial and investigative side of the book works well. A sensitive portrayal of a family tragedy needlessly escalated by the insensitive bureaucracy of insurance companies.
Booklist Colleen Mondor

provides a near minute-by-minute account of the search and miraculous rescue of the two young survivors. The pilot and his sister-in-law are dead, her daughters alive. Grief among family members turns to shock as the medical expenses mount and the aircraft insurance company refuses to pay out on the policy. Lawyers and lawmakers become involved as the girls' father fights to save his children and battles for what they deserve. Complicating Fowler's David-versus-Goliath premise is the balancing act the facts force him to walk as he must both blame the pilot (whose errors caused the crash) and sympathize with his widow, who also lost her sister. Though the insurance company is an obvious villain, the story of the Pearson children's recovery is truly stirring."
Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and bestselling James B. Stewart

"In FALLING THROUGH CLOUDS Damian Fowler has captured the drama, narrative sweep and broad implications of one family's remarkable encounter with tragedy and injustice. It strikes me as another A CIVIL ACTION by Jonathan Harr, but with even more drama and pathos."
Pioneer Press

"When he first heard about the Pearson family, Fowler only had planned on writing a longer magazine-style piece. But then he talked to Toby Pearson on the phone. The hour-long conversation was so compelling that it led to Fowler visiting the Pearson family and digging even deeper into the tragedy and Toby Pearson's fight with the insurance company. He got to know the family and even played soccer with the girls one memorable fall day, he said. Early on, Fowler felt an obligation to tell the Pearson family's story and tell it right."
From the Publisher

"This story had my heart from the first page, and it has stayed with me since. For anyone who has ever suffered through any sort of tragedy, this story reminds us that beauty often rises up from despair. It is beautifully written and gripping from start to finish."

Falling Through Clouds is a gripping, emotional and wonderfully written narrative of tragedy and triumph, social justice, and the bonds of love. Most of all, it is a tale of one father's determined struggle to care for two little girls who survived an unthinkable catastrophe. If you like David v. Goliath narratives where the little guy overcomes all odds, you will devour this book.

"Falling Through Clouds balances this David vs. Goliath legal fight against the devastating emotional and physical recoveries of all parties... The judicial and statutory resolutions that Toby Pearson and his lawyer finally effect are indeed remarkable, but what trumps all the legal machinations are Grace and Lily's survival." -Minneapolis Star Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250026224
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/29/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 771,381
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

DAMIAN FOWLER, former BBC reporter and New York based journalist, spent three years researching the Pearson family saga. Fowler has written for Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Guardian, The Financial Times Magazine, and The Times of London, among others.

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Read an Excerpt





On August 28, 2003, the fog rolled in and enveloped the little harbor town of Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. There was nothing particularly unusual about the changeable weather. Lake Superior—the biggest freshwater lake in the United States—is a vast inland sea that creates a maritime climate for the towns spread along its shoreline. Locals are used to the cooler summers, milder winters, and often foggy conditions.

Still, Carolyn Wall felt nervous as she drove down Gunflint Trail toward the airport in Grand Marais. Through the windshield of her car, she could see the heavy clouds all the way to the horizon, a thick, white blanket draped over the treetops of the surrounding Superior National Forest. It wasn’t a good morning to fly, but Carolyn hoped that there’d be a break in the weather closer to the airport, where she was to meet her husband, Charlie Erickson, who was flying his own six-seater plane in from Duluth, a city one hundred miles to the southwest but a short thirty-minute hop by air. Charlie was carrying Carolyn’s younger sister, Kathryn, and Kathryn’s little girls, four-year-old Grace and three-year-old Lily.

The day before, the weather had been picture-perfect. Carolyn had sat on the porch at the family cabin on Saganaga Lake, sipping wine with her father, Jack, whose approaching seventy-second birthday was the occasion for the family gathering. The two of them had gazed in amazement at the orange-red light of Mars reflecting on the dark water of the lake. It was an extraordinary event. That day, the red planet was closer to Earth than it had been in sixty thousand years. To Carolyn, it looked almost as big as the moon, and she wished her sister were there already so she could see this wondrous Martian glimmer. Carolyn would later have cause to think otherwise, but at the time the romance of the distant light on the lake seemed like a blessing.

The cabin on the lake had been in the Wall family for years, and they’d spent many hours stargazing or watching the northern lights. Carolyn and Kathryn’s grandfather, Otis John Wall, affectionately known as Gumpy, had built the place in 1934 along with a group of dentists from Saint Paul; they’d nicknamed it Shady Rest on Tooth Acres. Situated on Saganaga Lake, which traverses the Minnesota-Ontario boundary, the cabin was set in the midst of a glorious wilderness of forest and water. Its electrical power came from an outdoor generator, while running water was drawn from the pristine lake. With neither phone lines nor cell-phone reception, it had become a magical escape from daily life for the Wall family.

Growing up, Carolyn, Kathryn, and their brother John spent long summer weekends on the lake. In July or August, the family would load up the station wagon with food, drink, and bed linens and drive up the North Shore, then along the fifty-seven-mile Gunflint Trail to the head of the trail, where fingers of water break up the land mass. From here a boat ride would take them into the international boundary waters—technically no longer the United States—and eventually to their secluded cabin.

Summers on the lake were mostly idyllic. Blue dragonflies zipped busily over the water as swimmers splashed around, occasionally slapping away the biting black flies that pestered them. Sometimes the Walls went hiking through the forest trails, their dogs bounding ahead, excitedly catching the scent of wild animals. Bears, moose, lynx, and wolves all populated the forest. Every now and then, the high, haunting wail of a loon in search of another would punctuate the peace and quiet.

At Saganaga Lake, the wilderness was always on the doorstep. Carolyn was reminded of that when she woke up the day after she had watched Mars shine on the water. The weather had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Thunderstorms had moved into the area overnight, agitating branches and rippling the water. Over breakfast with her father, she listened to the forecast on the radio, wondering if Charlie had been able to set off that morning.

Carolyn and Charlie had met twelve years before and eventually married—she a pretty thirty-year-old restaurant manager (and aspiring nurse), and he a self-made entrepreneur in his early forties with his own company, UltiMed, which manufactured specialist instruments for the health-care industry. They settled down together in Minneapolis. Although Charlie had older kids from a first marriage, he and Carolyn had no children. As an aunt, Carolyn lavished a lot of love on Grace and Lily, and was especially excited now that her nieces, and her sister, would get to fly in Charlie’s plane for the very first time.

When the rain and thunder let up, Carolyn and her dad jumped into their little aluminum fishing boat and chugged across the choppy water—a forty-five-minute trip—to the trailhead where Carolyn had parked her car. Her dad headed back to the cabin to await his birthday guests as Carolyn sped off down Gunflint Trail toward Grand Marais Airport, an hour’s drive away.

By the time she arrived it was noon and a thick fog had descended on the airport. It seemed unlikely that anyone could have landed in these conditions, and she could see no sign of Charlie’s Beechcraft Baron on the tarmac. Carolyn went inside the modest terminal building to find out if there was any news about the delayed flight. It was empty, but she eventually found Rodney Roy, the airport manager who ran pretty much everything, including air traffic control.

“Have you heard anything from Charlie Erickson?” Carolyn asked.

“We had a radio call asking for clearance to approach, but I haven’t heard anything since,” replied Roy.

Roy explained that earlier he’d heard a plane fly over the airport, but he could barely see it as it was obscured by the clouds. When he lost contact, Roy had assumed that the pilot had flown either back to Duluth or to another local airport where conditions might have been more favorable for landing. Typically, in such a scenario, a pilot would have informed the air traffic controller (in this case Roy) that he was following a missed approach procedure—a published set of parameters unique to every airport that a pilot must follow after having missed a landing—but Roy had heard nothing after the first approach.

“I heard a plane fly over in the clouds, but I think he left the area,” said Roy.

When she heard this, Carolyn turned pale.

“Are you okay?” asked Roy.

“What options would he have had?”

“He probably went back to Duluth.”

“Oh, God,” said Carolyn. “I don’t think he did.”

“Why not?” asked Roy.

“He wouldn’t have gone back without filing a flight plan,” said Carolyn, her mind flooding with panic. Roy was surprised by Carolyn’s definitive comment and her startled reaction.

“Well, there’s no way he can get in today,” he said.

Carolyn rushed into the ladies’ room, feeling as if she was going to be sick. She took some deep breaths and then called her mother, Marilyn, in Duluth. Divorced from Jack since the mid-eighties, Marilyn had not planned to visit the lake that weekend. Carolyn called her, wondering if she’d heard any news about the flight. In her heart she hoped they were still on the ground in Duluth, waiting for the weather to clear. But Marilyn said she’d called the airport and they’d left.

“Mom, call a friend,” she said. “I don’t want to alarm you, but I think you should be with someone.”

With that, Carolyn jumped back in the car and drove the fifty-seven miles back along Gunflint Trail. Her mind was racing. She’d have to collect her things, pick up her dad and Kalli, her springer spaniel, and then shut the cabin up. The sky was slate gray. It was still raining. Her dad met her at the trailhead, surprised to find his daughter alone.

“Where is everyone?”

“They can’t find the plane.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have to go back.”

As she and her dad made the boat ride back to the cabin, Carolyn looked down at the lead-colored lake and thought, I want to dive into that water rather than face what I’m going to have to face.

*   *   *

Back in Duluth, Toby Pearson was in his office hurrying to finish up a report. A lawyer by training, Toby was a thirty-six-year-old organizer and policy analyst for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), an advocacy group that aimed to empower rural communities and to support family farms and local businesses. His work had taken him all over the country, and especially across the Midwest, where he listened patiently to the problems of small farmers, helping them organize locally before taking their concerns back to Washington. The NCRLC had been founded in 1923 to address the needs of underserved Catholic communities in rural areas, but its role and mission had expanded during the Depression, when it started to attend to the economic plight of suffering farmers. Since then, it had grown into a powerful force for promoting just and sustainable agriculture policies on state and national levels. The job suited Toby very well, bringing together issues of economic justice, faith, and the law. In turn, the farmers trusted Toby—a sincere, handsome family man from Minnesota who clearly found meaning in his work.

That morning, Toby had made Kathryn and his daughters their favorite breakfast, bacon and French toast. Grace and Lily were excited about their very first plane ride together, especially because Uncle Charlie was going to be flying them and their mom up to the cabin on the lake.

Toby had met Kathryn in 1988 in Duluth. She was then working as a waitress at a local restaurant over the summer break while she attended the University of Minnesota, studying international politics. He’d been immediately taken with her natural beauty—dark eyes, dirty blond hair, and an infectious smile that dimpled her cheeks. She was gentle, unpretentious, and had a playful sense of humor. Even then, Toby knew she was the one he would marry. Three years later, he made good on his vow. Kathryn, following in the footsteps of her mother, began working as a nurse. When Grace and Lily were born, the young family settled down in a house on London Road in Duluth, close to Lake Superior.

Toby and Kathryn had decided that a “short, little flight,” less than an hour up the North Shore, would be a good way to get the girls comfortable with flying. They’d discussed taking the girls to Chicago to see the world’s biggest T. rex at the Field Museum, so this flight would be good practice for the longer trip. Toby wanted to travel with his family, but the report deadline kept him tied to his desk. Instead, he would drive up to Saganaga Lake later the next day—a five-hour car trip—to join everyone for Grandpa Jack’s birthday party over the Labor Day weekend.

The girls left in a flurry of bags and excitement. Kathryn made sure she had the wine for the weekend, Grace her silky security blankets she called her “menkies,” while Lily’s main concern was her doll Pinky, which she stashed in her backpack. Toby buckled Grace and Lily into the car, kissed his wife, and said, “I love you. Have a safe flight.” He could see their happy faces through the window of the Ford Explorer as it backed out of the driveway and headed down London Road. Lingering on the porch of the family’s house, Toby noticed that the gently shifting water of Lake Superior was speckled with rain, a legacy of last night’s storm, which had now moved north.

He made the short walk up the road to the local Catholic grade school, where he kept his office. He worked until around noon, when the school principal knocked on his door and handed him a message while he was on a conference call: “Call your mother-in-law right now.” He wanted to put it off, but the principal insisted that it was urgent. When he reached Marilyn Wall, she was frantic.

“The plane is missing,” she said. “The clouds were too low and they couldn’t land.”


“They lost the plane that Charlie was flying. He hasn’t landed.”

Toby’s mind was racing. The thunderstorms that had passed through Duluth and up the North Shore now seemed more ominous. Perhaps, he thought, Charlie had waited for the storm to move on and delayed his departure, not wanting to fly into bad weather. Toby needed answers. He began calling the airports, trying to find out if the plane had set off late, or if Charlie had changed his flight plan. How much gas did he have? How long could he stay in the air if the weather wouldn’t let him land? He called Grand Marais airport and spoke to an operator, who by this time had more information. Yes, she told him, they’d received an ELT signal—emergency locator transmitter—that usually triggers automatically when a crash has occurred, but a rough landing could also have set it off. She said the airport was having problems triangulating the transmission because one of the signals was coming from a “ways out” in Lake Superior and another one from the land.

“I hope you’re focusing on the land,” said Toby, “because if they’re in the lake they’re dead.”

The largest, coldest, and deepest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior has frigid water even in the summer months. It was unlikely anyone could survive long in the chilly waters before hypothermia set in.

“There’s only so much I can tell you,” said the operator.

“Well, I’m the husband and father of those passengers, so I hope you can tell me more than you think you can.”

*   *   *

A local pilot, Dan Anderson, watched the sky all morning, feeling anxious about a flying lesson he was due to give at 1:00 P.M. Maybe the weather would break, but if it didn’t he decided that he’d run some ground instruction with his student instead. Now forty, Anderson had been flying since he was in high school—his nickname was Sky Dan—and he was quite used to the fickle weather of the North Shore. His was a familiar face around the little Grand Marais airport where he kept his small Cessna. As well as flying lessons, Anderson offered scenic flights over the surrounding forest, guaranteeing his passengers that within minutes of takeoff they would see a moose. Once, when he was coming in to land, he’d seen a family of wolves walking on the runway. Anderson was experienced enough to know that the best times to fly were early morning or late afternoon, when the winds were lighter. But today, it was unlikely he’d get off the ground. The cloud ceiling was clearly below the minimum descent altitude, the point at which a pilot must be able to see the runway in order to complete the approach and land. (This varies depending on the airport, but in the case of Grand Marais, that minimum is 544 feet above ground level; the airport sits ten miles above the town, up a mountain road, and is surrounded by the tall trees—pine, fir, aspen, spruce, and birch—of the Superior National Forest.)

While he waited for his student, Anderson encountered the airport manager, Rod Roy, who told him what he knew: a twin-engine plane, a Beechcraft Baron 58P, had flown over and then disappeared from radio contact. Roy was using his handheld radio to tune in to the ELT signal but said it wasn’t easy to determine location. A reconnaissance aircraft of the Minnesota Wing Civil Air Patrol—a volunteer civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force—had taken off from Duluth and was also involved in the search but had found nothing. Anderson watched Roy jump in his car and drive off in an attempt to home in on the signal.

Anderson feared the worst. The surrounding area was not only densely forested, but was rife with endless river valleys and high rocky hills, so any signal would bounce around the terrain like a Ping-Pong ball, making a search-and-rescue operation a major challenge. Alarmed by the thought of another pilot in distress, Anderson was determined to go up for some aerial reconnaissance. Perhaps he could spot the plane from the air. But that couldn’t happen until the weather had cleared, so he was forced to wait.

A break in the sky—“a blue hole,” Anderson called it—afforded him the opportunity he’d hoped for, and he took off in his Cessna around three P.M., some four hours after the plane was reported missing. Once he was up in the air, Anderson began tracing an east-west grid in the narrow band between the fog and the treetops. He tried to home in on the distress signal, but the peaks and valleys of the land kept skewing it. Nervous about the fog, he was fully prepared to fly above it and head south to Duluth if it got any worse. As it was, he kept a steady air speed of about sixty-five knots, flying two hundred feet above the forest. It was a dangerous maneuver even for an experienced pilot like Anderson, because at a slow speed like that he risked stalling the plane. Several aircraft had gone down in the surrounding wilderness over the years, including one flight that had crashed in 1971. This one in particular was on Anderson’s mind. He’d been present twelve years later when the aircraft wreckage, along with traces of bone and hair fragments and a couple of forlorn shoes, was finally found. He had no doubt—going down in Superior National’s ocean of trees was just as bad as disappearing in the middle of the Atlantic.

He picked up the emergency signal again; his hope flared, and he prayed the signal wouldn’t vanish again. Looking down, he could see emergency vehicles traveling up Gunflint Trail. Flying parallel to the road, Anderson was so close he could signal to the vehicles from his cockpit window, pointing in the general direction of the beacon to get them closer. The forest immediately below him consisted of dense, old-growth trees that were used for timber, one small area of the three-million-acre Superior National Forest. How the hell am I going to get those guys in there? he thought.

It was then that he saw the bright white tail cone of the plane and pieces of debris on the edge of a freshly cut clearing. Anderson made another pass and could see the burned wreckage of the aircraft scattered like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle on the ground. Now he saw the burned-out fuselage and noticed that both the left and right wings had been ripped off the aircraft on impact. His heart sank. He radioed down to the search-and-rescue team: “There’ll be no survivors. Just bring body bags.”

Mark Falk, the thirty-seven-year-old chief deputy sheriff in Grand Marais, Deputy Sheriff Joe Zallar, and the Cook County Search and Rescue intercepted the grim news and raced toward the crash site. Falk had become the chief deputy sheriff in 1995 and had quickly become a well-respected figure in the area. He typically dealt with a range of issues—cabin break-ins, lost hikers, alcohol-related offenses, domestic disputes—but now he was dealing with a plane crash for the first time.

The only access to the site was down a local logging trail, so the rescuers had to make their approach on ATVs and then on foot. As they navigated through the thick trees, they came upon the clearing and saw a column of smoke curling up into the clouds.

Falk turned to Zallar and told him to start taking pictures to document the crash site. Up close, the scene was devastating. Pieces of the wreckage—the inverted torso of the cabin, a grotesquely twisted propeller, disemboweled pieces of rubber exhaust hose, dislocated wings—were strewn over three hundred square feet. He surmised that the plane must have been flying low in the clouds over the clearing before it hit a tree, then made impact with the ground before smashing into the wall of old-growth trees. Falk could see the deep, muddy slash in the forest floor where the plane plowed into the heavy trunks that must have halted its forward slide. It looked to Falk as if the cabin had flipped over before impact, though he didn’t know for sure. He saw that one aircraft engine had broken from the airframe, slammed into the edge of a big tree, and charred the trunk charcoal black. Another engine had also been ripped off and evidently burned fiercely, the fire melting parts of the metal casing.

Falk approached what would have been the cockpit and saw the burned remains of two people. He did not know how many people were on this flight. The area around the cockpit was still intensely hot from the crash. Some of the big tree trunks were still smoldering, glowing red. Twenty yards to the right, Falk could see remnants of passenger seats that had been thrown clear of the cabin. Then he noticed what he thought was a little doll—a pale, impassive face in the midst of the carnage. Oh no, he thought, we’ve got kids in this crash. He approached the doll and saw what he thought was a fishnet stocking on a leg. As he got closer, he saw a head pop up and the alert blue eyes of a child. The girl, who looked to be about three years old, was conscious and lying on a seat that was completely reclined next to another little girl of similar age who was lying on her stomach, but also conscious. Both appeared to be calm.

“We’ve got survivors!” shouted Falk. He was astonished to find anyone alive in the midst of this destruction. Even though it had been more than five hours since the crash, the girls had remained near the debris, evidently far enough away from the hot flames that had consumed the other passengers. Falk could see now that the fishnet stocking was actually burned skin on one girl’s leg. His team came running over to help lift the girls to safety. As he bent down to get closer, one of the girls said something that made him catch his breath.

“Mommy burned up.”

*   *   *

Carolyn drove down Gunflint Trail for the second time that day, the dark trees now seeming to press in on either side of the winding road. At the trailhead store, she’d contacted the sheriff’s office and been informed that plane wreckage had been spotted from the air, but there was no further information.

With that knowledge and without cell phone reception along the route, Carolyn made the anxious drive, her dad sitting next to her. They were already quite close to Grand Marais when Carolyn could finally make another call to the sheriff’s office. Steeling herself, she pulled over and got out of the car to talk. That was when she learned the incomprehensible truth: Charlie and Kathryn were dead. Grace and Lily were still alive. Stunned, she got back into the car and told her dad what she knew. He slammed his hand down on the dashboard with a thud, a gesture that summed up the conflicting emotions surging through her body: an adrenaline shot of shock, anguish, and disbelief. Just then, an ambulance with its lights flashing sped by their car.

“That must be them,” said Carolyn. She followed the ambulance to the Cook County North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais, a compact building with a small staff and just three beds in its emergency room. Still, it was well-enough equipped to diagnose and stabilize trauma victims before transferring them to a bigger facility. When Carolyn pulled up, she saw the paramedics carrying a little girl into the ER. It was Grace, who looked dazed and shocked.

She could see that Grace had twigs tangled in her hair, and she could smell the powerful odor of singed hair. She followed the paramedics into the ER as the girls were whisked there to receive urgent care. Then she saw Lily who, though badly injured, looked up at her aunt with big eyes.

“Hi, Lily,” said Carolyn. “Are you hurting?”

“No,” she said. “I just have to tinkle.”

She didn’t get to say much else because her traumatized body was swelling up fast, and so the doctors determined that they should insert a tube to assist breathing and prevent the possibility of suffocation.

As she waited in the brightly lit hospital, Carolyn found herself thinking, Why am I not collapsing on the floor wailing? She’d just lost her husband and her younger sister, but right then she felt them as a “calming presence,” strengthening her for the ordeal ahead.

Deputy Sheriff Zallar, who’d been at the crash site, gingerly approached her and asked if they could talk privately. She sensed his nervousness and knew what was coming. It was his official duty to break the bad news to her about the deaths of Charlie and Kathryn. As he spoke, she realized he had some of his facts wrong; for example, he said that the plane had been an eight-seater. Carolyn said to herself, Maybe the whole thing is a big mistake and no one has really died.

*   *   *

In Duluth, Toby had been sitting by the phone, waiting for news. His close friends Patrice and Cynthia had come over to the house to wait with him. Toby had become friends with both women through his diocese in Duluth, where they’d worked together on social programs dealing with education and the homeless. Although their presence was a comfort, he was extremely anxious and jumped when the phone rang. It was an officer from the Cook County sheriff’s department providing him with another update. The officer didn’t use the word crash, preferring the less definitive heavy landing, though it was clear that something serious had happened to the plane. While they waited to find out more, Cynthia and Patrice did some tidying up, washing the breakfast dishes from that morning, and tried to stay positive.

But when Kathryn’s brother, John, arrived at the house, they all sensed the worst. He looked at Cynthia and Patrice.

“Can I have a moment in private with Toby?” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be private,” said Toby.

“It’s not all bad news,” he said, reaching out to put his hand on Toby’s shoulder. “The girls are okay. But Kathryn and Charlie are gone.”

Toby started sobbing. Cynthia grabbed Patrice by the arm and they moved to the other room. Patrice could hear John speaking quietly to his brother-in-law.

“Toby, you were such a good husband to my sister. I am so grateful.”

Toby collapsed on the counter and cried for fifteen minutes, thoughts of his wife flooding through him. Even then he couldn’t linger in his grief. His daughters had survived and he didn’t know much about their injuries. Should he make the drive up to Grand Marais to see them? Toby soon learned that the girls would be sent by ambulance to Duluth, where they’d receive emergency treatment at Saint Mary’s Medical Center, which was better equipped to deal with burns. He spoke with his sister-in-law Carolyn, who would be traveling with Grace and Lily in the back of the ambulance. She explained that Grace was in better condition than Lily, who was more badly burned than her sister.

“What do you want me to tell them if they ask about Kathryn?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Toby replied. “What do you tell a three- and a four-year-old who’ve just lost their mother?” He collected himself. “Tell Grace I’ll see her at the hospital.”

An agonizing two hours, the time it took for the ambulance to travel down the highway to Duluth, followed. A series of frantic phone calls ensued, originating with Toby, who spoke to his mom and sister, barely believing the words coming out of his mouth. The extended Pearson family, from Colorado to Saint Cloud, dropped everything and started to converge on Duluth.

*   *   *

Toby arrived at Saint Mary’s ahead of the ambulance. While he was waiting, he got a call from his friend Father Bill Graham, a priest in his early fifties who’d recently left the diocese to move to Chicago. Over the years, Toby, Kathryn, and Father Graham had grown close. Kathryn, who had been raised a Lutheran, had converted to Catholicism even as she’d challenged Graham with questions about faith, God, and the meaning of life. Father Graham had heard about the accident and reached out to his friend, but Toby was distracted.

“I can’t talk now.”

“You have eight minutes,” said Father Graham.

A minute earlier, he’d called Toby’s house on London Road; Patrice had picked up and told Father Graham the ambulance had just gone by. Since it was approximately eight minutes from the hospital, Father Graham knew he had a few moments to talk. Toby listened to the reassuring words of his friend from inside a fog of grief and hope.

There was commotion when the girls arrived at the hospital. Medics rolled Lily straight into the ICU to stabilize her. She was under sedation and breathing through a tube, but Grace was conscious and alert when she arrived. Toby ran over to his daughter, who started crying. They hugged each other and Toby told her how much he loved her. In the ambulance, according to Carolyn, she hadn’t talked much about the crash, but she’d been worried about Lily’s backpack and her doll Pinky. Still, she managed to give the adults some fragmentary clues about her experience.

“We fell out of the sky and we don’t know where Mommy is,” she said. “We were waiting for people to come, and I took care of Lily.”

Grace had third-degree burns on her hands and legs but hadn’t yet begun to feel the pain that would come. Lily, though she was conscious when she was rescued, was now in serious condition. When the doctors finally permitted Toby to see her, he was shocked. She looked like a marshmallow; her skin had turned pale white and was badly swollen, an early symptom of the third-degree burns she had on her arms, legs, and face. Toby found himself overwhelmed with helplessness. Grace fretted that Lily was “sleeping a lot.” The doctors could offer little reassurance to Toby as to whether his youngest daughter would live. Toby learned that, in cases where more than 50 percent of the body sustains third-degree burns, the victim has a fifty-fifty chance of survival. All the doctors would say was “We’ll know more tomorrow.” They had no idea whether Lily could even breathe on her own.

That night, Toby and Kathryn’s families gathered at the hospital: Carolyn, who’d been the first to learn the news, came along with her father, Jack. One by one, family members arrived, stunned, fearful, questioning. There was Kathryn and Carolyn’s mom, Marilyn, in the waiting room, stricken by the impossible news of her daughter’s sudden death. Toby’s parents, Maureen and Tom, and his sister, Beth, soon joined them. Later, his brother Tony, an M.D. whose knowledge of internal medicine would help provide more insight into the girls’ condition, arrived from Colorado, along with his wife, Anne. Toby’s younger brother, Andy, made the journey from Saint Cloud. The focus now was on Grace and Lily, whose survival against all odds kept the shadow of grief at bay. There were hard questions to ask: How had the crash happened? Was Charlie to blame? Was it his bad judgment that cost him and Kathryn their lives? Would this tear the family apart? How would Toby cope? “It was a complicated grief situation,” recalled Carolyn. For now, these questions would have to wait.

Carolyn went to her mother’s house and took a shower, reflecting on the day that had taken her husband and sister from her. She let the hot water pour over her skin as grief overwhelmed her. After holding herself together all day long, she was now racked by sobs. Just twenty-four hours earlier, life had seemed blessed: on the porch, drinking wine with her dad, Kalli curled contentedly at her feet, waiting for the family to arrive. Then she remembered the shine of Mars on the lake, the red light from the planet named after the Roman god of war. “Since the accident,” Carolyn would later say, “I will always consider Mars a portent of tragedy.”

At Saint Mary’s, the girls were moved into a big private room with Grace on one side of the room and Lily on the other. Toby and his mother kept a bedside vigil. At one point, Maureen went to comfort Grace, who started to tell her grandma some details about the crash. Toby wanted to know if there had been panic in the aircraft before the crash, but, according to Grace’s description, they were flying along and suddenly they weren’t. She talked about how she had to unbuckle Lily to move her away from the fire until it went down. “I protected her,” Grace said. “We just waited and took a rest on the seat.”

When Toby heard this for the first time, he was astounded. Not only had the girls survived the plane crash, but Grace had somehow known to stay near the wrecked aircraft even as it burned. Had the girls wandered off into the forest, they would have disappeared forever. No one, not even the doctors, had any medical explanation for their survival. It was shortly after this that Toby started hearing people use the word miracle in relation to the girls’ survival. People could believe that if they wanted, Toby thought. Even if it was miraculous, it was still tainted with tragic loss.


Copyright © 2014 by Damian Fowler

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2014

    "Falling Through Clouds" by Damien Fowler is a book th

    "Falling Through Clouds" by Damien Fowler is a book that, in my opinion, should be studied. The last time I had such a great time reading non-fiction literature was with Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood". And now again, in "Falling Through Clouds", I realized how emotional and how effective a non-fiction book can be if it is well written.

    To start with, I was amazed by the gigantic and extremely detailed research done by the author. Mr. Fowler sounds like an experienced FBI agent when it comes to investigating and revealing the facts. And these facts never prevail over the overall idea and form of the book. In different moments in the book I was suspecting that the author is either a pilot, or a skin surgeon, or a lawyer, depending on where Mr. Fowler was digging.

    Mr. Fowler sounds like an experienced psychoanalyst when it comes to penetrating the wounded soul of his characters. Writing about plane crash survivors could be a very fragile task and needs a very intelligent and sensitive approach in order to extract and put on paper the unthinkable horror and pain of the survivors.

    Mr. Fowler is a skillful writer and my only proof is that by the end of the book I felt like a member of the Pearson family, sharing their struggle and their triumph. One of the best qualities of this book is that after finishing it, I was not sure whether I have read a non-fiction or a novel – so well professional journalism and intense emotion were mixed.

    Last (and this is something that I personally find important with every book I read), the way Mr. Fowler uses the English language, makes me feel proud of being able to speak it - powerful and elegant and yet never self-indulging or excessive.

    Great story!
    Great journalism!
    Great literature!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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