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July 23, 2013

ONLINE ONLY: Woman who survived car's plunge from bridge describes swim to safety

The car went off the side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and into the water. It began to fill up, and the 22-year-old driver believed she was drowning.

But Morgan Lake, of Dunkirk, Md., said she made the decision not to die in the water and told herself "you can do this."

And she climbed out of the car, through a shattered window, and swam to safety, becoming the central figure in a story of survival that has attracted vast attention.

It began shortly after she drove onto the bridge Friday night, on her way to Philadelphia to visit friends and relatives. The terror took hold when she looked in the rearview mirror and saw a tractor-trailer "coming full speed." Her car was struck, police said.

According to authorities, the car hit the barrier at the side of the bridge. That pushed her car back onto the roadway, but then it was bumped by the tractor-trailer a second time. That propelled it upward 3½ feet to the top of the concrete Jersey wall.

The car straddled the wall for a time, according to police and to Lake.

But then, she said, it tipped over, and she was falling for what "felt like eternity."

It seemed almost to be happening in slow motion, Lake said. The drop was estimated to have been 40 feet or more. Then the car hit the water, its windshield and the driver's side window shattered.

The car filled with water, Lake said, and she "felt I was going to die." She said she actually "started to drown."

But then, she said in a telephone interview late Sunday, "I got myself together," and refused to drown.

She told herself that she could save her own life, and she did.

"I went from panic to calm," she said. She proceeded in steps, first unbuckling her seat belt, then grabbing the window and getting out of the car.

She said it seemed to take a long time to reach the surface. She gasped for air as many as five times. She looked around and began to swim.

Her mother, Melani Lake, said she knew her daughter was an incredible athlete. But "we didn't know she could swim like that."

She credited her daughter's "sheer will to survive."

For her part, the daughter, a student at the College of Southern Maryland, described herself as "blessed to be alive."

She said she learned that "there's a superman and a superwoman in everyone." The important thing, she said, is "just not to give up."

When the car went into the water, it was not far from the bridge, which is supported at that point by a series of pillars. Soon she reached rocks that surround the base of one of the bridge supports.

Division chief Keith Swindle of the Anne Arundel County (Md.) Fire Department said a boater in the area went to her aid and stayed there until the arrival of the county's fire boat and a boat from the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

After initial treatment, Lake was placed on a police boat and then flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. She was released Saturday from the hospital.

The police officer said it was first believed that she had suffered fractures, but he said her injuries turned out to be only bumps and bruises.

Lake said she was still experiencing considerable pain Sunday night. But "blessed to be alive," she said.

In their account of the crash, released Sunday, Transportation Authority Police said Lake was driving alone on the eastbound span of the bridge about 8:30 p.m. Friday when her car and another one were struck by a tractor-trailer.

The other vehicle, a Mazda, remained on the bridge and neither occupant was injured.

The driver of the truck, Gabor Lovasz of Canada, was not injured, police said.

No charges have been filed, but an investigation is ongoing, a spokesman for the Transportation Authority Police said.

Authorities said the crash occurred less than a quarter-mile from shore and shut down the east-bound span of the bridge for about two hours.

The car was removed from the water Saturday.

The 4.3-mile arched, dual-span Bay Bridge, which rises 186 feet above the bay at its highest point, has long terrified some motorists. Crossed by more than 25 million vehicles annually, it connects Washington's urban centers and suburbs with Ocean City and other coastal communities - and can provide a white-knuckle driving experience, even in the best of conditions.

"The Bay Bridge has everything to fear, not just height," the late psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross once told The Washington Post. "Water, traffic, claustrophobia - anyone who's prone to suffer from a phobia has a problem with the bridge. It's the feeling of being so close to death."

For years, police offered to drive cars over the bridge for phobics; more recently, entrepreneurs have done the same. In 2010, Travel + Leisure magazine named it one of "the world's scariest bridges."

But accidents in which cars go flying off the bridge into the water are extremely rare.

"It is very uncommon for this to happen," said 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green, a Maryland Transportation Authority Police spokesman.

The last time before Friday, he said, was 2008, when a three-vehicle accident sent a chicken-filled 18-wheeler through a concrete wall and into the water, killing the driver, John Short of Willards, Md.

Another motorist died in an accident in 2011, after his car broke down on the bridge. He stepped out of the vehicle, which was subsequently struck by a truck. The force of the crash sent Harry Blauvelt, a retired sportswriter, into the water.

Washington Post staff writers Julie Tate and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

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