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22-year-old summoned inner ‘superwoman’ to escape submerged car after being forced off bridge

By KATIE FITZPATRICK

Staff writer

Morgan Lake survived falling 35 feet from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge into the water Friday because she found the “superwoman inside” of her, which she said gave her the strength to fight for her life.

“I’ve been saying that everyone has their own superman or superwoman in them, and mine definitely came out full force because I wasn’t going to go out that way,” Lake, 22, said. “That wasn’t my fault, I didn’t ask for that, and I wasn’t going to let that take me down so easily.”

Just after passing through the toll booths at about 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 19, Lake was driving a 2007 Chrysler Sebring east across the bridge on her way to Philadelphia, when her car was hit by a tractor trailer, according to Maryland Transportation Authority Police. The truck was driven by Gabor Lovasz of Charlottetown, Canada, who was not injured in the accident.

The truck also hit a 2014 Mazda, driven by Herbert A. Sutcliffe Jr., of Olney. Sutcliffe and a passenger in his vehicle were not injured, police said.

“Traffic was at a stop on the Bay Bridge. … I look in my rearview mirror and I see this huge red and silver 18-wheeler coming full force,” Lake said during an interview Monday afternoon in her Dunkirk home.

Lake said she blinked once, and “by the second blink, I was thinking to myself, ‘Is he going to slow down?’ And by the third blink, he hit me.”

Lake said, “Everything in my car exploded.” Her airbags deployed and her windows and windshield shattered. Her car went up on two wheels, straddled the jersey wall of the bridge and slid for several feet, she said. During this time, Lake said she was thinking, “If I could just stay on this bridge” she would be OK.

“But when that suddenly changed, I instantly went into panic mode. I freaked out,” Lake said, adding that her car’s 35-foot drop from the bridge to the water felt like a drop on a roller coaster ride.

Lake said she saw the water approaching and screamed. When she hit the water, her mouth was open and “got full of water.” She said she remembers thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to die?” Lake’s seat belt was locked, and she said her frantic struggles only made things worse.

“All of the sudden, I said, ‘I don’t want to die,’” she said, adding that she had to force herself to calm down and to stop pulling against the locked seat belt.

“I didn’t like the drowning sensation; I didn’t like feeling helpless.”

Lake said she believes the car sank about 12 feet when she decided she “didn’t want to go out that way.” With her right hand, Lake released the seat belt from its lock, maneuvered her body through the broken driver’s side window and used her feet to push herself off the door toward the surface.

“Everyone has their own superwoman or superman; they have that strength in them,” she said. “You just gotta fight for it and not give up. It’s easy to give up, and I could have ­— I almost did. But I didn’t like the sensation of drowning. It’s scary [and] it hurt.”

When she surfaced, she “took some really big deep breaths” and then swam toward nearby rocks, where she stayed for about 45 minutes until she was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. She said as she was waiting, a man on a boat stayed with her to make sure she was all right, but he could not get close enough to the rocks to pull her aboard.

“The God in me just gave me adrenaline, and my survivor instinct skills just kicked in,” Lake said.

When she looked up, Lake said, there were dozens of people on the bridge. She said she yelled out to them to call her mother, Melani Lake.

Melani Lake said she received a phone call from a bystander, “who must have been a parent, because he never let on that the accident she was in was anything near what he witnessed.” She said initially she thought she was just going to get to the bridge and give her daughter a ride because her car was being towed, and had no idea how severe the accident was until she got to the hospital.

“I knew it was bad because I was stuck in the traffic and I saw the Medivacs … but I didn’t know she went over the bridge,” she said.

Morgan Lake was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma in Baltimore and was released Sunday after being treated for her injuries, police said.

Paramedics originally thought she had a broken femur and a broken arm, and that “something was wrong” near her abdomen, Morgan Lake said, but she ultimately had no broken bones. On Tuesday, she was using a walker and was still recovering from several cuts and bruises she received in the accident.

The first time Morgan Lake saw her mother after the accident was at the hospital, and she said she immediately felt relieved.

“That’s all I wanted from the get-go, was my mom,” Morgan Lake said. “I had a necklace she had given me and I just held onto it and said, ‘Thank God.’”

Melani Lake said she “still has goose bumps hearing the ordeal,” but is “thankful to God” her daughter is alive.

“My prayers are answered for a lifetime,” she said.

Morgan Lake, a College of Southern Maryland student who plans to earn a degree in communications with the hope of one day becoming a reporter for a television news station, said she has played a variety of sports throughout her life and is currently a coach with the Maryland Twisters, an all-star cheerleading team. She said she believes that because she was “never a couch potato” and has remained athletic throughout her life she had the necessary strength to survive the crash and swim to safety.

Her mother agreed, stating her daughter was always fearless, even as a child. Melani Lake said when they lived in the Chesapeake Ranch Estates in Lusby, Morgan Lake would ride her bicycle with her feet perched on the bicycle frame and arms raised in the air while speeding down a hill shouting, “Look at me, mom!” Other times, Melani Lake said, her daughter would jump on a trampoline and grab overhanging tree branches and swing from them.

“It wasn’t enough just to have fun,” Melani Lake said as she smiled at her daughter. “She was fearless.”

Friday’s incident has received news coverage nationwide and has raised questions regarding the safety of the Bay Bridge. AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling on the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the safety of the bridge barriers.

“Based upon news reports, we believe this crash merits investigation by the NTSB, and call upon your agency to undertake an investigation,” Mahlon G. Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic managing director of public and government affairs, wrote in a letter to NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman.

The bridge barriers were installed in 1986 and were designed so that “if a vehicle ran into it at a small angle, it would deflect the vehicle back into the bridge-way with minimal damage,” according to a statement from AAA Mid-Atlatnic. In the letter to NTSB, Anderson wrote that recent history indicates there is a failure of the restraint system on the Bay Bridge, such as when a tractor trailer went off the bridge in 2008 and the driver died.

Anderson states that although Friday a truck was involved in the accident, it was a passenger vehicle that went over the barrier.

“This clearly raises questions about whether there was a failure of the specific restraint system used on the bridge, and whether it meets federal specifications, or whether the federal specifications for the bridge barriers are inadequate to restrain a vehicle in this type of crash,” he wrote in the letter. “If so, does it warrant an examination of the adequacy of those federal specifications?”

Police said no charges relating to the incident have been filed as of press time.

“That decision will be made after the investigation is complete. This will take weeks,” said transportation authority police spokesperson 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green.

MTA police are still investigating the incident. Anyone with information is asked to contact investigators at 443-915-7797.

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com