Standing 5,267 feet above sea level, I felt unstoppable.
My friends and I had just climbed to the summit of the highest mountain in Maine, Mount Katahdin. The hike took an entirety of 12 hours and had tested not only our physical strength, but also our ability to maintain mental focus and drive.
The five of us had traveled over 10 hours from New York to accomplish this feat and well, I couldn’t have been more proud.
Gabriel, Jose, Joanna, Michael (my boyfriend) and I trekked down the mountain smiling from ear to ear. We were full of life and adrenaline. Although almost complete strangers before the hike, we continued to encourage each other to keep going and stayed together throughout the entire climb. At the end, we even jumped into an ice cold pool by the waterfall at the base of the mountain. The energy was so magical; it all seemed like a dream.
On such a beautiful day, I could have never expected what would happen next to be so tragic.
From trekking to tragedy
After a lovely lobster dinner, we agreed to take turns on the drive back home to New York. The first driver, Jose, seemed tired but said he was able. The rest of us were so wiped from the hike, we didn’t question him. All of us fell asleep in a matter of minutes... including the driver.
When I next opened my eyes, I awoke to screaming and the car spinning 360 degrees. I felt the car swerve and felt what came next: crash, bang, pain.
“When I next opened my eyes, I awoke to screaming and the car spinning 360 degrees. I felt the car swerve and felt what came next: crash, bang, pain.”
The airbags exploded as the car rolled over three times off the highway. My head spun. Glass was everywhere and I couldn’t feel the right side of my body.
My boyfriend, doubled over in the front passenger seat, screamed: “I CAN’T BREATH! I CAN’T BREATH!”
When my vision cleared, I saw his entire lower body stuck in a ball of mud that had entered through the car window. I thought it was over.
I thought I was dead.
Gabriel called 911 for an ambulance. Jose was doing jumping jacks on the highway trying to call for help. Joanna shook in fear right next to me, and Michael was stuck in a ball of tree roots and mud that had entered the car through the window.
“I wanted to yell, but I didn’t have the energy. I kept thinking about my mom.”
I reached with my left hand to dig dirt out as Michael pulled his legs free from mud. I felt my vision fading from the pain in my chest as Joanna told me to stay conscious. I wanted to yell, but I didn’t have the energy. I kept thinking about my mom.
When the ambulance came, I felt the paramedic pull my body on a stretcher. They transported me to the nearest hospital. The entire time I couldn’t believe what was happening. It all seemed so unreal. I kept thinking about all the obligations I had the next day. How I had to attend my yoga program the next morning, how I had to go to work at my digital marketing firm in the city all week, and how much I wanted to see my sisters... but I couldn’t move my body.
The realization slowly hit that I wouldn’t be able to do any of those things.
Reflections from a survivor
Incredibly, the car had swerved off the highway and into a sunken pit of mud—right before a tree. Later, experts determined that the car was traveling about 90 miles per hour so if it had hit the tree, the blow would have been fatal. The doctors couldn’t stress enough what a miracle it was that we were still alive and in one piece.
Michael and I received full body CAT scans, MRIs and X-rays. Joanna, Gabriel and Jose walked away from the accident with minor scrapes and bruises. While Michael left the hospital with cuts and stitches, I was admitted for two days with a broken sternum and phase 1 bruised spleen.
I felt so lucky. I am so lucky. We are all so lucky to be alive.
Jose was in tears the whole night, blaming himself for the accident. The pain in my body still remains, but I know slowly it will dull and fade. Yet, this experience is forever. I still cannot believe how we let Jose drive. We all knew he was tired, but we just wanted to sleep and get home.
My reflections about the accident were (and still are) incredibly frustrating. Healing and dealing with my injuries has brought so much anger, yet also happiness. That bittersweet feeling of being alive—albeit the terribly difficult rehabilitation—is eerie.
I can still imagine the moments of life fading when I close my eyes and try to recollect that night.
I realize that sometimes accidents just happen. As much as I could blame myself, the driver, or any of the passengers, there is a communal responsibility that’s important to acknowledge. That moment when you feel something—even a shred of doubt—where lives may be in danger, it’s important to speak up.
“That moment when you feel something—even a shred of doubt—where lives may be in danger, it’s important to speak up.”
Being assertive isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s not just important: it’s necessary. I learned my lesson the hard way, but it’s a lesson I’ll never forget. Be careful who you get in the car with and make sure you’re 100% confident that they’re are able to drive safely.
If something doesn’t feel right, say something. Who knows, it could save your life.