CONWAY — Bryce Kenning saw a puff of smoke and suddenly the north section of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River vanished in front of him.
“I was going 60 mph. It was like an explosion, but I didn’t hear anything. I slammed on my brakes, but it didn’t matter,” Kenning said. “My car launched into the air and I landed nose down on top of the bridge deck in the river. The airbags went off.”
Kenning was one of three people in two vehicles that crashed into the river with the dramatic collapse of the Skagit River Bridge on Thursday night. No one was killed.
Kenning, 20, was headed north on I-5 at about 7 p.m. for his usual Thursday hockey game with friends in Bellingham. The Mount Vernon High School graduate and University of British Columbia sophomore played this past season with the Bellingham Blazers junior hockey club.
Kenning’s bright orange Subaru Crosstrek slammed against a fallen bridge truss, keeping the car from completely submerging in the frigid river.
“I tried to open my door, but all I did was let water in up to my waist. I panicked and that’s when I thought I was a goner,” Kenning said. “In a last-ditch effort, I kicked open the passenger door, which wasn’t all the way in the water, and I was able to climb on top of the car.
“I didn’t think to turn the engine off and my windshield wipers were going. I thought about swimming to the bank because I didn’t know if the car would sink, but the river was so cold and moving so fast. I was freezing, but I stayed put.”
A foot one direction or the other, Kenning said, and his car might have been squashed from above by the collapsed trusses.
“It was an act of God that no one else was driving north at that moment,” he said. “The whole thing is a miracle.”
When he got on top of his car, Kenning looked over to see Dan Sligh of Oak Harbor and his wife, who had been traveling southbound. They were still alive in their pickup truck. Their camper trailer was smashed to bits and the pieces were floating down the river.
“The guy was bleeding, but he asked me if I was OK and he kept talking about his wife being in shock,” Kenning said. “At that point, some first responders had arrived and called down from the top of the bridge. I waited about 45 minutes for the sheriff’s deputies to get me to shore.”
Bystanders cheered as Kenning was pulled out of the river and put in an ambulance. He was taken to United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley.
Meanwhile, Kenning’s friends recognized his distinctive orange car. A friend’s mother called Kenning’s mom, Sheila Kenning, at home near Conway.
A nurse, Sheila Kenning drove as fast as she could through the extra traffic, mistakenly heading to Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon. An ambulance driver at that hospital’s emergency room said her son had been taken to United General.
“On the way, I talked to God like I never had before,” she said.
In spite of the goose egg-sized bump on his head, Bryce Kenning did not have a concussion or any internal injuries.
“I had whiplash from falling 50 feet, but I was OK,” he said. “My cellphone was in the drink, so at that point, I just didn’t want my family and friends to panic.”
It was a good hour before Sheila Kenning arrived in Sedro-Woolley.
“I told Bryce that he scared me to death, but it was such a delightful joy to see him again,” Sheila Kenning said.
The young man’s father, Barrie Kenning, and his sister, Claire Kenning, 15, were working out at the Everett YMCA. Claire got a text message from a friend.
“They thought Bryce’s car was in the river. I tried to keep cool, and my dad told me it would be one in a million chance that it was Bryce,” Claire said. “I was praying the whole time we drove north from Everett to the hospital.”
After Bryce Kenning was released from the hospital close to midnight Thursday, the family went home. They stayed up most of the night talking and even watched an episode of “The Office” to take the edge off.
“I thought about how I was in the luckiest place in the middle of a bad scenario,” Bryce Kenning said. “I’m so glad no one died.”
Gale Fiege, 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org