I-5 bridge collapse survivor: 'I can't believe we're alive'
Bryce Kenning saw the void before him in an explosion of dust, and there was nothing he could do.
"It was like time was frozen — like a roller coaster where you're not attached to the tracks," he said Friday. "It's something you never think you will ever experience in a lifetime — driving off a straight cliff."
Kenning, of Mount Vernon, was headed north to a pick-up hockey game in Bellingham on Thursday evening when the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River crumpled and fell. The 20-year-old slammed the brakes and could see the edge of the pavement approaching, he said in a phone interview.
"I still just shot off the edge of that thing and went nose-first into the water," he said. "I'm sure it was just one of the loudest sounds ever to hear this thing explode and fall into the water like that, but I didn't hear a thing. I just witnessed it happening in front of me."
The car plunged and every air bag in the brand-new Subaru Crosstrek deployed around him.
"The water was just flooding in, and you can't really see anything because you're surrounded by the air bags - that's when you don't really know whether or not you're going to make it out of that situation alive," he said.
Kenning, a sociology major at the University of British Columbia, started to panic, and when he realized he couldn't open his door, he panicked a bit more. Water was about halfway up the windshield. He kicked it a few times, to no avail. Inside the car, the water rose to his waist.
"I still had enough breathing room," he said. "I just kind of took a deep breath and looked at the passenger door. I pulled the handle and just kicked that door as hard as I could to open it."
It worked. The door opened just a bit. Water gushed inside, but he was able to make it out and onto the roof to await rescue. The car was pinned against part of the bridge, so the car neither sank all the way nor floated downstream.
Kenning quickly saw he wasn't the only lucky one.
Nearby, Dan Sligh was outside his pickup truck, with his wife, seemingly in shock, in the cab.
Sligh and Kenning checked in on each other, and Kenning mulled his options. Would more parts of the bridge keep falling? Would another car come over the edge? Should he swim for it?
He decided to stay put, and he and Sligh marveled at their fortune as they waited about 45 minutes for a sheriff's boat to reach them. Sligh said he suffered a separated shoulder.
"He was pretty amazing," Kenning said. "He's bleeding, I don't know from where, but he's just really concerned about this wife. We just kind of talked like, 'I can't believe we're alive.'"
Once the sheriff's boat reached him and brought him to shore, he said, "I was never happier to get my feet on land again."
He said he never noticed the oversize truck police have said struck a bridge girder over the roadway, causing the collapse.