SAN JOSE -- Kathryn Santanocito adjusted her glasses and grinned as she sat patiently in her wheelchair Tuesday evening, waiting for her Civil Air Patrol promotion ceremony to begin at Reid-Hillview Airport.

For Kathryn, 14, the promotion is well overdue. On a windy morning on March 18, the same day she was originally set to be promoted to the rank of cadet senior airman, Kathryn tumbled 40 feet off a cliff while hiking with friends in Alum Rock Park.

Kathryn broke her left femur, her jaw and suffered a collapsed lung and a serious brain injury. Her rescue was televised throughout the Bay Area -- something she has no recollection of because she was unconscious -- and up until two weeks ago she was still recuperating at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

But as she stood Tuesday night to greet some of the firemen and California Highway Patrol officers who helped save her life, Kathryn was the picture of health.

"We didn't think she would get this well this fast," said Kathryn's mother, Janice Santanocito, as officers approached her daughter, several saying softly, "We're all glad you are OK."

Kathryn's father, Mark Santanocito, said Tuesday was the first time his daughter had stood up for as long for an extended period, not wobbling or needing to sit once during her promotion ceremony.

The patrol unit's squadron commander, Capt. J. Kenneth Palmer, spoke to Kathryn's peers, who stood in perfect formation as they watched her during the ceremony, along with the about 50 San Jose firefighters, CHP officers, family and friends who gathered to cheer Kathryn on.


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"Her progress is nothing short of miraculous," he said. "She has overcome great obstacles to be here and we are proud to have her be a part of our squad."

Tuesday's ceremony marks new ground in Kathryn's remarkable recovery. Kathryn's brain injury prevented her from speaking until only a few weeks ago, her mother said, and though her voice is still wispy, her sentences are clear. She can walk with the help of a walker, though she still cannot move about entirely on her own. Therapy is a constant presence in Kathryn's life, and will continue to be so for some time.

An aviation enthusiast, Kathryn cannot wait to get back to participating in the Civil Air Patrol -- a federally supported nonprofit corporation that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The volunteer organization performs search and rescue (by air and ground) and disaster relief operations, aerospace education and cadet programs for teenage youth.

And it may not be too long before she enjoys her favorite part of flying: the heights.

In fact, she has her sights set on getting her pilot's license, maybe even before she gets a driver's license. You only have to be 16, she chimed in.

"That seems to be the plan," Janice Santanocito said. "And I'll tell you what, I would trust a teenager behind the wheel of a plane far more than I would behind the wheel of a car."

Contact Katie Nelson at 408-920-5006 and follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.

More on civil air patrol
In the late 1930s, more than 150,000 volunteers with a love for aviation argued for an organization to put their planes and flying skills to use in defense of their country. Thus, the Civil Air Patrol was born one week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thousands of volunteer members answered America's call to national service and sacrifice by accepting and performing critical wartime missions, including logging more than 500,000 flying hours, sinking two enemy submarines and saving hundreds of crash victims during World War II.
On May 26, 1948, Congress permanently established Civil Air Patrol as the auxiliary of the new U.S. Air Force. Three primary mission areas were set forth at that time: aerospace education, cadet programs and emergency services.
Source: Civil Air Patrol