For one woman from Plymouth, the story of how she emerged from the bridge wreckage was one that even she can't believe.
Alicia Babatz, 22, was in the middle of the bridge when she saw the other cars start to plunge and felt the road drop beneath her. She gripped the steering wheel, closed her eyes, and thought, "This is it."
But it was only the beginning of a remarkable tale of survival. Friday, she was released from the hospital with a broken tailbone and a few scrapes and bruises, still incredulous that she survived a fall, a submerged car and a treacherous climb to safety.
After only two days, she was going home to her 2-year-old daughter and fiancé.
"I can't believe I'm alive," she said Friday, from the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, waiting to be discharged.
In some ways, her story echoes that of many who emerged, against all odds, from the wreckage of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse on Wednesday.
At the same time, it has a haunting quality all its own.
Babatz, of Plymouth, was going to her future in-laws to pick up her daughter, Brittney, when she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She had been working late in Roseville, where she's an account manager for DiscBurn, which replicates DVDs and CDs. And traffic was slow.
"I was about halfway across," she said, when "the bridge went out from underneath me." She started to pray as her section of the bridge pancaked straight down to the Mississippi River. Her black Nissan Maxima landed with a jolt as the road slammed into the river. Somehow she remained conscious. "My seat belt probably saved my life," she said. But the car slid into the river and began filling with water.
"I remember the water rushing over my head," she said. "At that point, I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to drown with the car."
On the bridge, her windows had been closed because the air conditioning was on. But the plunge must have shattered the glass. She doesn't remember how, but she got free of her seat belt and "just pushed myself out."
She started to swim toward the east bank, a sharp pain in her hip. "By the time I turned around just a few strokes later, my car was gone," she said.
She reached another car that was partly submerged and hung on to rest. She could see rescuers helping others. But to reach them, she had to maneuver across hazardous rubble and up a steep concrete slab, while barefoot and in pain.
"I knew I had to do what I had to do to survive," she said. "Your survival instinct just kind of kicks in."
Finally, she reached shore and rescuers helped her up to a dirt road, where she finally could lie down. Someone put a neck brace on her.
Babatz borrowed a cell phone and tried to sound calm when she called her fiancé, Randall Harris.
"She told me she was OK," said Harris. But she wasn't sure where she was, or which hospital would take her. Then she called her mother. "I was kind of scared," Babatz admitted. "I didn't want her to panic."
On shore, a young woman stayed by her side, watching over her. The woman kept her talking, and alert, until Babatz was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Babatz knows only the woman's first name, Jenny. But she hopes to meet her again.
As for her recovery, Babatz said she'll need crutches for a few weeks. "I still can't believe I walked away from it," she said.
Maura Lerner 612-673-7384 firstname.lastname@example.org