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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, 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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DAMIAN FOWLER, former BBC reporter and New York based journalist, has spent the last 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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WE FELL OUT OF THE SKY
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 Pin...
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