Amber Pennell doesn’t remember much about the five days she spent trapped in a mangled pickup truck in a ravine. But what she does know about the ordeal that nearly claimed her life is that it was thoughts of her children and her husband that kept her alive.
“I know it was my children that kept me going. My children mean everything to me. There’s no way I would get away from them,” Pennell told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday from Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, N.C. “My daughter just turned 3. My son just turned 1. There’s no doubt in my mind they’re what kept me going and my husband kept me going. The thoughts of them is what kept me going.”
The 21-year-old mother of Gracelyn, 3, and Cameron, 1, was on her way home from her job as a waitress on the night of Aug. 20 when she vanished. She had called her husband, Mitchell, to tell him she was on the way home, and she made stops for supplies for a birthday party and to get gas.
But on the way home, she somehow lost control of her pickup truck on a four-lane divided highway, crossed the median, and plunged into an 80-foot-deep ravine. Pennell and the truck were swallowed by dense brush and a carpet of kudzu vines.
She suffered numerous injuries, including a skull fracture, a broken arm and leg, hypothermia and dehydration. Pennell was pinned in the shattered truck for five days while more than 100 professionals and volunteers scoured the route she would have taken home, looking for any sign of her.
Sitting in a wheelchair and with a pink cast on her right forearm, Pennell gave her first national television interview since being rescued five days after the accident. She was to begin physical rehabilitation later on Wednesday.
“I’ve been doing a lot better,” she told Vieira. “I haven’t actually started my rehab until today. I don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Pennell’s first goal is to walk again. “I know I’ll walk again, I just don’t know how long it will take,” she said. “I’m giving it a week. That’s my goal, but it could be a lot longer.”
Vieira asked what she remembers of the accident and her ordeal.
“I don’t remember going off the road,” she said. “I don’t remember what happened to cause me to go across the median and go off the road. I guess I was knocked unconscious; I really don’t know.”
Reaching for water
Pennell had purchased Hot Pockets on her way home, but she has told local newspapers she couldn’t reach them in the crushed cab of the truck. She said she managed to get water to drink from the foliage that covered the vehicle.
“I remember one time reaching out — I guess the glass was busted. I remember reaching out the window and squeezing the leaves for water,” Pennell told Vieira. “That’s all I really remember. I don’t remember a whole lot. I don’t know what I did for food, water, shelter — anything. I don’t know what I did.”
While she was trapped, Tommy Courtner, the Caldwell County, N.C., director of emergency services, led the search. Pennell’s route home would have taken her on U.S. Highway 21, and Courtner, who joined Pennell for the interview, said searchers scoured the highway twice over the five days.
It was on their third sweep that Courtner noticed faint tire marks on the side of the road. He was about to turn away when he caught the glint of a bumper in the kudzu. He called Pennell’s name and she waved.
One of the first EMT people to begin the 45-minute job of cutting her free was a friend, Dino Dibernardi. “I remember clinging to him and asking him not to leave me, I don’t want to be alone,” Pennell recalled. “I’d been alone for five days.”
Vieira asked Pennell if she thinks it’s a miracle she survived.
“I don’t like to consider anything a miracle. I don’t like being considered a miracle,” Pennell replied. “But I know it’s a miracle I’m alive, and it’s a miracle my husband pushed for me to be looked for and that my kids clung to their mother for so long.
"They still call me ‘Mommy’ — and that means everything to me.”