MOUNT VERNON, Wash. - Bryce Kenning was on his way to a pickup hockey game in Bellingham with some friends Thursday night, a drive from Mount Vernon to Bellingham that the 20-year-old college student has done so often that he doesn’t think about it.
Then he crossed the Skagit River Bridge and it disappeared in a cloud of dust.
“There’s just like a huge explosion in front of me and the ground and bridge is falling into the water,” Kenning said from his family’s living room in Mount Vernon on Friday. “My first reaction is you know, this has to be a dream.”
It was more like a nightmare. Kenning said he didn’t even see the semi-truck that hit the bridge and is believed to be responsible for its collapse. He just hit the brakes and flew off into nothing.
Then he saw the water.
“And that was when I kind of thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.
Every airbag erupted. The engine stalled. Kenning said his adrenaline surged. First, he tried his door. No luck.
He tried kicking out the windshield twice. It wouldn’t budge.
Then he eyed the passenger’s door as his likely last resort.
“(I) saw that, you know, it was starting to fill with water. But you know that’s my best chance, so I pulled the handle and kicked on the door as hard as I could and I was able to get out,” said Kenning.
He said he was afraid for his life, but also felt something inside himself say that he would refuse to die in the Subaru wagon his family bought him in January to drive to Canada, where he goes to college.
His mother Sheila was enjoying a quiet evening at home alone when a friend called to say she thought she saw Kenning in the accident on TV. Sheila was frantic. She said she sped to the nearest emergency room at Skagit Valley Hospital, assuming he would be taken there. But she was shooed from the ER by hospital employees who didn’t know who she was. When she explained to someone that her son had been in the bright orange Subaru in the bridge wreck, an ambulance driver told her Bryce was taken to a different hospital and was OK.
“To worry your child has died in a horrific accident -- that is beyond my imagination,” she said, flanking her son on the family couch and patting his leg. She choked up repeatedly as she re-lived the fear in her mind.
“And to find he’s alive.. and happy…” and she trailed off and choked up as a tear ran down her nose.
Kenning said the accident has certainly changed him.
“I woke up and looked outside and it’s sunny and I have my family here and I mean … it’s the greatest,” he said. “I mean, it’s the first time I woke up and was like, ‘God it’s good to be alive.’”
Kenning said that while sitting on top of his car waiting for rescuers, he had time to ponder the what-ifs. What if he'd been a few moments earlier or later. He might have died.
But he's looking forward already. His goal is to make the University of British Columbia hockey team and he's prepared to drive over a bridge to get there. He said he’ll have to, simply because life goes on.
And his mother, now a big fan of Subarus, plans to get him another one. Watch uncut version of complete interview here.