The car went off the side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and into the water. It began to fill up, and the 22-year-old driver believed she was drowning.
But Morgan Lake, of Dunkirk, Md., said she made the decision not to die in the water and told herself "you can do this."
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 3 1/2; 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. The drop was estimated to have been 40 feet or more. Then the car hit the water, its windshield and the driver's side window shattered.
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.