By KATHRYN FLAGG
NEW HAVEN — When 64-year-old Lorraine Clark’s car swerved off an icy road and into the New Haven River earlier this month, the Bristol woman remembers having one clear thought: Don’t panic.
“I said to myself, ‘Now, don’t panic. You can’t panic. You’ve got to use your head and you’ve got to keep your wits about you,’” Clark remembered. “‘You’re the only one down here and you’ve got to help yourself.’”
That wherewithal — an inner strength, Clark said, that she never knew she had — and a heavy dose of good luck saved Clark’s life on Dec. 9, when her 2002 Pontiac Grand Am slid off the road and plunged about 30 feet into the icy river.
Clark had been driving toward Bristol on River Road around 2 p.m., shortly after leaving her job as a food service assistant at Helen Porter nursing home in Middlebury.
As she approached a narrow bridge over the New Haven River near Halpin Road, she saw a green car driving toward her from the opposite direction — too close to her own side of the road for comfort.
She swerved to the right slightly to avoid hitting the car, and the tail end of her Grand Am fishtailed. Clark made it over the bridge, but by that point the front end of her car had started to shake violently, and she lost control of the vehicle entirely.
Her car slid off the road, over the river bank, and then plunged into eight feet of icy, fast-moving water.
Clark, jostled by the crash, found herself suddenly in the passenger seat. Her car was rapidly sinking.
She knew that all four doors were locked — the Pontiac’s doors did so automatically every time the key turned in the ignition. So Clark fumbled with the lock, and then threw her weight against the door, using her shoulder to try to wedge the door open.
“I put all my weight up against the door — I used the whole force of my arm to try to open the door,” she remembered.
It didn’t budge. The current, she supposed, was too strong.
“Oh, I was so cold,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
She sat there for a moment. The water in the car had risen to her chin. And then, Clark said, something miraculous happened.
“All of the sudden, that door opened. That whole door just opened right up, and something just pulled me right through that door.”
Clark grabbed onto the doorframe with her right hand and the roof of her car with her left. She managed to step onto the hood of the car. The windshield wipers were going, and the car’s lights were still on, but the Pontiac was almost totally submerged.
Her ordeal, though, was far from over. Perched on the roof of her car, and about 30 feet from the riverbank, Clark looked down at the river.
“And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to do something,’” she said, “so I jumped.”
That in and of itself was an extraordinary feat of courage for the mother of five, as it would turn out.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t swim,” she said — but as she told her daughter later, “I’ll tell you, I can doggie paddle pretty damn fast.”
Clark clawed her way onto the shore. Two weeks later, she said her knees were still black and blue from crawling over the stones on the bank of the river.
From the riverbank Clark called out for help, but several cars whizzed past without noticing the car in the river below.
That’s when good fortune put New Haven Fire Chief Michael Dykstra in the right place at the right time.
Dykstra was driving toward Middlebury with his wife, Angie. He was on the way back into town, he said, just by chance — he’d traveled that same stretch of road 10 minutes earlier, but he’d forgotten a last-minute errand.
Something red caught his eye. The cab of his truck was high enough, Dykstra said, that he could see down into the river. That’s when he saw the car in the water and quickly pulled over and radioed for help.
Clark, he said, was lying on the bank by the water. The fire chief was able to drag her to the edge of the bank, and then with the help of another passing motorist he carried Clark to his pickup.
He stripped off Clark’s heavy, wet jacket and shoes, bundled her up in spare blankets in his truck, and ratcheted up the heat in the truck. Middlebury Area Rescue Squad arrived at the scene about 10 minutes after he called for help.
It was one of the most frightening calls he’d ever found himself on, Dykstra said — but also one of the luckiest.
“It’s amazing how people can be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It seems like I always seem to show up on scene.”
Dykstra said he was honored to help, but that any fireman driving past who’d seen what he saw would have acted in much the same way.
“Things happen for a reason, and we were just happy to be able to help,” said Dykstra. “It’s one of the best Christmas presents you could ever give to somebody.”
Vermont State Police Senior Trooper John Young arrived at the scene after Clark was whisked off to the hospital. He guessed that Clark lost control in the standing slush along the edge of the bridge.
Had the accident happened at night, he said, Clark’s car could well have gone unnoticed in the river.
“I told her she was lucky,” Young said. “Somebody was looking down on her that day.”
Clark agreed on that count.
In part, she said, someone was traveling with her that afternoon — someone not at all unlike the little metal angel that she had tucked over the visor of her car.
“Every night I go to bed and thank God that somebody was in that car with me to let me out,” she said. “Somebody opened that door, and pulled me out.”
But she also played a very large role in her own rescue.
In the wake of the accident, Clark said that many of her friends and co-workers said that they’d never have been able to survive in the same conditions. It’s not that simple, she said.
“I didn’t think I would ever do something like that either, but if it happens to you — you can do it,” she said. “You’ve got an inner strength, an adrenaline, that takes over. You’ve got to help yourself. You’ve got to save your own life.”