For the Perdue family, Nov. 13, 2021 will always be a day filled with both immense tragedy — and true miracles.
On that fateful day, Laney, an 11-year-old girl of Gaylord, Michigan, was getting ready to make the 20-minute flight to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan — her favorite place in the world — with her dad Mike, 43. She was going to see a family friend, while he planned to hunt with family and friends.
“I was so excited,” Laney tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
Alongside her dad, Laney said goodbye to her mom Christie, sister Addie, 8, and twin brothers Henrik and Bo, 2 — a moment Christie will never forget.
“He gave me this huge hug, let go for a minute and then squeezed me super tight again,” says Christie, 39. “Mike is known for his bear hugs.”
It was just a few hours later that his famous hugs would end up protecting and saving his little girl.
Aboard the 1:30 p.m. flight, Laney’s next memory was looking out “one of those little windows and seeing the grass and feeling my dad’s arm around me,” recalls the fifth-grader. “I felt this feeling in my stomach like the plane just dropped, and my dad had his feet out like he was bracing for something.”
Adds Laney: “The last thing I remember is my dad giving me the tightest hug ever. I’m alive because of him.”
Just three miles away from landing at 1:47 p.m., the plane crashed, killing Mike; passengers Kate Leese, 35, Adam Kendall, 37, who were married to each other; and pilot William Julian, 55.
Miraculously, Laney only had 11 broken bones and injuries to her lip and mouth. The first responders who pulled her from the wreckage credit her dad’s act of love with shielding Laney from the impact of the crash.
When Christie heard about the accident and rushed to see her daughter, she was unsure if Laney had survived the emergency helicopter ride from the island. But after arriving at the hospital, Christie laid her eyes on her little one and didn’t leave her side.
“I grabbed her hand and she squeezed mine,” says Christie, who quickly realized that her daughter didn’t know her father had died.
“I was like, ‘Hey, Mom, where’s Dad?'” says Laney. “I was freaking out because I didn’t know there had been a crash. It was scary.”
After Laney was transferred that evening to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Christie told her the heartbreaking truth.
“I wanted to make sure he was okay, I kind of knew he had passed, but I wasn’t sure,” says Laney. “I just broke down crying.”
In the midst of her injuries and grief, Laney knew how she wanted to honor her father: She would walk at his funeral. After enduring surgeries on her jaw and foot, she moved from her wheelchair to crutches, and on Dec. 11, she hobbled with them behind her dad’s casket.
Their entire community also stepped up, created a GoFundMe page to help with mounting expenses.
Laney and her family will always remember Mike, who worked in real estate, as “the best girl dad” who “celebrated the little moments in life” alongside his family.
“Every day he would wake up and be like, ‘You guys are beautiful. You guys are special,'” says Laney. “He was amazing.”
Back at home, the now family of five makes sure to remember and honor Mike daily. They write down memories of him in a book kept on the kitchen counter — and are already thinking of when they will be back on Beaver Island.
“Years ago, he said, ‘Promise me if something ever happens to me, you keep coming to the island with the kids,'” says Christie, whose mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law have since moved in to help. “It’s the greatest tragedy and the greatest joy. We lost Mike, but we kept Laney.”
Adds Laney: “I’m so sad, but I know Dad would want us to be okay. He would want us to live.”