And 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.
It 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 at the side of the bridge. That pushed her car back onto the roadway, but then it was bumped by the tractor-trailer a second time. That propelled it upward 3½ feet to the top of the concrete Jersey wall.
The car straddled the wall for a time, according to police and to Lake.
But then, she said, it tipped over, and she was falling for what “felt like eternity.”
It seemed almost to be happening in slow motion, Lake said.
Then the car hit the water, its windshield and the driver’s side window shattered.
Early reports had estimated the car dropped 40 feet or more, but investigators now say the vehicle fell 27 feet from the bridge.
The car filled with water, Lake said, and she “felt I was going to die.” She said she actually “started to drown.”
But then, she said in a telephone interview late Sunday, “I got myself together” and refused to drown.
She 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 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, which is supported at that point by a series of pillars.
How far Lake swam was not completely clear Sunday night. Her account, as well as that of an Anne Arundel County fire department official, indicated that she reached rocks that surround the base of one of the bridge supports. However, a police officer said witnesses told investigators that she swam several hundred feet to a jetty.
Division chief Keith Swindle of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department said a boater in the area went to her aid and stayed there until the arrival of the county’s fire boat and a boat from the Maryland Natural Resources Police.