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 Calvert County, Md., said she made the decision not to die in the water and told herself, "You can do this."
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.
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.
Ms. Lake's trauma 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 along the side of the bridge. That pushed her car back onto the roadway, but then the tractor-trailer bumped her a second time. That propelled her car upward 31/2 feet to the top of the concrete Jersey wall.
The car straddled the wall for a time, police and Ms. Lake said. But then, she said, it tipped over, and she was falling for what "felt like eternity," she said, and it seemed almost to be happening in slow motion. The drop was estimated to have been 40 feet or more.
When the car hit the water, its windshield and the driver's side window shattered. The car filled with water, Ms. Lake said, and she "felt I was going to die." She said she actually "started to drown." But then, she said in a phone interview, "I got myself together," and 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 that 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, supported at that point by a series of pillars. How far Ms. Lake swam was not completely clear. Her account, as well as that of an Anne Arundel County, Md., fire department official, indicated that she reached rocks that surround the base of one of the bridge supports. But a police officer said witnesses told investigators that she swam several hundred feet to a jetty.
Anne Arundel County Fire division chief Keith Swindle said a boater in the area went to her aid and stayed there until the arrival of the county's fire boat and another from the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
After initial treatment, Ms. Lake was placed on a police boat and then flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. 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. She was released from the hospital Saturday.
Ms. Lake said she was still experiencing considerable pain Sunday night, but felt "blessed to be alive."
In their crash account Sunday, Transportation Authority Police said Ms. Lake was driving alone on the bridge's eastbound span about 8:30 p.m. Friday when her car and another one were struck by the tractor-trailer. The other vehicle, a Mazda, remained on the bridge, and neither of its occupant was injured.
The truck driver, Gabor Lovasz of Canada, was uninjured, police said. No charges have been filed, but an investigation is ongoing, a Transportation Authority Police spokesman said.
Authorities said the crash occurred less than a quarter-mile from shore and shut down the bridge's east-bound span for about two hours. Ms. Lake's car was removed from the water Saturday.