It was Amber Pennell’s indomitable will to see her two young children again that sustained her for five days in the wreckage of a pickup truck that hurtled down a deep, hidden ravine in western North Carolina, according to the rescuer who found her.
But Amber’s husband said he is just grateful that nobody gave up on her.
“It was the best feeling in the world just to know she was alive,” an emotional Mitchell Pennell told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Wednesday. “I just can’t describe it.
“She’s talking and just asking about her kids all the time and letting everybody know how much she loves them and appreciates the searching for her [and] not giving up. She said she knew that everybody was looking for her.”
Pennell was found on Monday night, five days after she left work and told her husband she would be home after stopping at the store to buy some supplies for their daughter’s birthday.
It was Caldwell County Emergency Services Director Tommy Courtner who finally found the 21-year-old mother on Monday night.
“Amber had the good will to live,” Courtner told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira. “She had children here that she loved dearly, as well as her husband and her family. With the small children, she had the will to carry on.”
The Pennells are now indebted to Courtner and all the other people who refused to stop searching, even as time challenged hope.
“I can’t thank Tommy enough for his help, and the people that helped look for her,” Pennell said. “He’s my hero. I love him more than anything. My wife loves him more than anything, and I know her kids do for bringing their mommy back home.”
Never came home
Pennell, a waitress at Hannah’s Bar-B-Que in Lenoir, N.C., had left her job shortly before 10 p.m. last Wednesday. Before heading home, about 20 miles away, she stopped at a Wal-Mart to purchase birthday materials and home supplies. She made a call to Mitchell to see if he needed anything and left, the store’s surveillance camera recording her departure at 10:14 p.m.
Although a K-9 team searched around her house, police officials mostly believed from the outset that Pennell’s car had gone off Route 321 — which would prove to be a great challenge for searchers because of long stretches of thick brush covering deep ravines.
“We focused on the area right around her house, the Buffalo Cove Mountains, which is some pretty rough terrain,” Courtner told Vieira.
In vain, volunteers and emergency officials cut through steep gorges, shrouded in trees and covered with kudzu vines, looking for crushed foliage. The fruitless search drew more desperate as the weekend continued.
Sign of life
But finally, Courtner spotted Pennell’s crushed 194 Toyota truck near the bottom of an 80-foot ravine. The clue was a faint tire-track mark at the edge of the embankment.
“It was very hard to see it,” Courtner added.
Courtner hollered out Pennell’s name and was thrilled to see a first sign of life — she raised her arm through a window. Video: Mom survives 5 days in ravine
Rescuers lowered themselves down the embankment with ropes and reached Pennell, who was pinned under the dashboard. Once they extricated her from the mangled mess and lifted her up on a stretcher and into an awaiting ambulance, a crowd of onlookers and volunteers broke into applause as the five-day ordeal came to a close.
“Well, that’s a great feeling,” Courtner said. “We had a lot of folks up here. My staff at Caldwell County Emergency Services, along with all of the volunteer agencies, the fire departments, the rescue squads, the law enforcement. We had hundreds of man-hours invested in this.
“It was something we all wanted. We were praying for an outcome like this, and for it to become a reality — that was a blessing for all of us.”
Road to recovery
Pennell is now recovering at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, having suffered a skull fracture and other traumas as well as dehydration and hypothermia. As of Tuesday night, she was still listed in critical condition.
“She’s doing good, considering the situation,” Mitchell said.
There were some thoughts that perhaps Pennell’s car went airborne before slipping off the road and the same thick brush that so hindered the search may have actually cushioned her landing and saved her life.
But in the close-knit community, it was a mother’s determination to see her family again that carried her through. After all, her little Gracelyn turns 3 on Friday.
“Faith, hope and will: Those three things, I think, got her through it,” Keith Davenport, the county’s emergency services manager, told NBC News’ Michelle Kosinski during a taped segment on the incident.
“She’s a fighter, and that’s what she’s done,” Courtner summed up for Vieira. “She’s still alive today for that.”
And Mitchell Pennell could not be more grateful.
“I just want to say she’s the most amazing woman and the most amazing mother,” he told Morales. “She’s just awesome. Thank you so much.”
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