SEATTLE – His back broken, his body burned and the ordeal of surviving a plane crash just two days behind him, Forest Service worker Matthew Ramige was already joking with nurses and calling for milkshakes.
For his mother — who was first told he was dead, only to learn the next day that he had emerged from the wilderness with a fellow survivor — Ramige's surfacing sense of humor was helping the joyous news to finally sink in.
"Now that I've had a chance to talk with him — he's joking with the nurses and asking for milkshakes and ginger ale — I'm starting to believe it," said Ramige's mother, Wendy Becker of Albany, N.Y.
Despite his injuries, Ramige and Forest Service colleague Jodee Hogg walked 2 1/2 miles to safety from the spot south of Glacier National Park (search) where their plane crashed and burned Monday. The other three occupants were killed in the crash.
Authorities initially reported that there were no survivors.
Becker told a Thursday news conference at Harborview Medical Center (search) in Seattle, where her son was being treated, that family members had gathered in Kalispell, Mont., to make arrangements and grieve.
"We were putting together his obituary," she said.
Dr. David Heimbach said Ramige, 29, of Jackson, Wyo., was badly hurt but should fully recover and could be back to work by spring. He was listed in serious condition.
Ramige was flown to Harborview's burn unit after he and Hogg, 23, of Billings, Mont., made their way off a mountain and through forest to reach a highway. A hospital helicopter picked them up. Hogg was in stable condition Thursday at Kalispell Regional Medical Center (search) in Montana.
Ramige's father learned of his son's survival as he checked into a hotel but initially did not believe it. He wanted to see his son first.
When he arrived at the hospital, his son's face and hands were badly swollen. "He didn't look like Matt, but we knew he was," Bob Ramige told NBC's "Today" show Friday. "And we knew he was alive, and he was in a lot of pain, you could tell that. He was shaking from the pain."
The single-engine aircraft under contract to the Forest Service (search), carrying a pilot and four Forest Service workers, left Kalispell Monday afternoon on a 30-minute flight to a grass landing strip in the Great Bear-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, south of Glacier National Park.
It crashed during stormy weather above timberline in the mountains, but three of those aboard managed to get out of the burning wreckage — Hogg, Ramige and Ken Good, 58, of Whitefish, Mont.
Good died of his injuries in the night. Killed in the crash were pilot Jim Long, 60, of Kalispell, and Davita Bryant, 32, of Whitefish.
Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont in Montana said the initial investigation suggests the pilot did not have enough altitude to fly through a canyon.
"By the time it dawns on him that he's not going to get through the ridge ... he can't see the ground nor the notch to go through," Dupont said. "He starts a turn, but it's a real narrow canyon."
The pair apparently chose to stay with Good as long as he was alive, trying to cover his exposed body with the plane's engine cowling and shreds of insulation as temperatures dropped to freezing Monday night.
After Good died and daylight returned, the pair set out for help, assuming their footprints in the snow would lead searchers in their direction. But by the time the weather cleared and a search party reached the crash site, the snow had melted.
Hogg and Ramige spent a second night in the wilderness during their hike. They had no way to start a fire and huddled to stay warm, surrounded by the sounds of animals stirring in the woods.
Paramedic Tim Thornton was with Hogg during the ambulance ride to the hospital and listened as she related the survival story. "She looks up at me and she says, 'My parents think I'm dead,"' Thornton told The Daily Inter Lake newspaper.
Dupont said the aircraft went from more than 100 mph to zero in less than 40 feet.
"Who can survive that?" he asked. The fire "literally melted everything." Aside from Good's body near the wreckage, the crash was so devastating that responders could not even accurately count bodies, he said.
Undersheriff Chuck Curry said he searched, but failed to find any sign that anyone survived the crash.
"There were no footprints leaving the site, no piled rocks, no written message — nothing indicating someone had survived or left the area," Curry said Thursday.
Ramige, who will be at Harborview for about a month, was in intense pain during his trek out, Heimbach said.
"His biggest trouble was trying to bend over to get some water out of the streams," he said.
The doctor said Ramige will be treated for a lower spine fracture with a brace. "He's got no paralysis and that's quite stable. I think he's an incredibly lucky young man, and tough as nails."
Ramige suffered burns on his face, chest, thigh and both hands, and will require some skin grafts, the doctor said.
Becker noted that Monday is her son's 30th birthday. "He's going to see 30," she said with wonder in her voice.