‘Mary did everything right’
Most teenagers are quick on their feet, and Mary Gehrig is no exception.
Mary was having a good time hanging out with a friend. Realizing that a storm was brewing, she pulled the weather card and used it as an excuse not to leave. As teens often do, Mary led with her most compelling reason. “Oh no, I can’t come home right now. It’s dangerous,” referring to the half-hour drive.
Her mom, however, was not buying what Mary was selling. Karen Gehrig’s maternal instinct kicked in, and like moms everywhere, she wanted her daughter home before the skies opened. Mary reluctantly headed home around 9 p.m.
On any other evening, 17-year-old Mary’s protest about coming home mixed with a smidge of teenage attitude might have been nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone in the family would be safe and sound and come morning, they would make small talk over muffins and orange juice. However, on this night, the evening unfolded in a way that no one would have anticipated.
Her ride home started fine. It was raining, but nothing Mary couldn’t handle. “I’ve never really been afraid to drive in storms; I’m pretty good with them,” she explained.
But as she got closer to home, things took a turn for the worse. Mary recalls that many cars had pulled off to the side of the road due to low visibility caused by torrential rains, but since she was almost home, she thought she would keep going.
However, the storm took a drastic turn and got so bad that she was driving blind.
After she made one of her last turns onto a county road, she said that flashes of lightning illuminated glimpses of white lines in the distance, but she could not tell what they were. As she got closer, she realized that there was nothing small about the linear obstructions strewn across the roadway.
“By the time I realized it’s on the road, it’s big and I was not going to (be able to) drive over it. I was like, I am going to hit this,” Mary recalls. She slammed on the brakes and her car struck whatever was in the road. She said her next thought was, “Oh my gosh, what did I do.”
What she hit was a massive, high-voltage transmission power line that was no longer hung from tower to tower in its proper place. The wrath of the storm had damaged several structures and brought down large lines. It was as if nature’s fury was in the ring with metal transmission towers, and Mother Nature won the match, bending many of them in half with her unapologetic wind shear.
Although transmission towers are designed to withstand all kinds of conditions, many of them were irreversibly damaged due to the storm system that took on a life of its own, becoming much more volatile than originally forecasted.
“You’re looking at all these towers, and they’re doing toe touches,” said Chris Gehrig, Mary’s dad.
After Mary’s car came to a stop, she says it began malfunctioning and was rendered undrivable. It was a life-changing moment that could have gone either way, depending on what she did next. Fortunately, Mary’s next thought was to call her parents.
“When we learned that she had hit a power line,” her dad Chris recalls, he told Mary in no uncertain terms to, “Stay put. Don’t move. Don’t do anything. Call 9-1-1.” Luckily, her phone’s charge lasted an hour or so after she hit the power line.
Fire chief Rich Schock, who was on the scene that night, said, “Those are large transmission lines with a lot of volts in them, and this could get bad fast.”
Although Mary experienced a full range of emotions while waiting in her car, she could not get out and first responders could not approach it until it was confirmed that the power lines were deenergized.
This process took some time since the transmission lines were not local and spanned several states. Cass County Electric Cooperative worked closely with the company that owned the transmission lines to ensure that no one would get hurt.
If Mary would have gotten out, which she admits she did consider doing at one point, her body could have become the path to ground for the stray voltage and she could have been electrocuted. However, Mary stayed put, and the Gehrigs hope that others will learn from her experience. Her family is quick to credit everyone involved with her safe recovery.
“I think Mary did everything right,” Schock said, since Mary stayed inside the vehicle until it was safe to exit. After returning home in the early morning hours, “She was very happy, probably happier than I’ve ever seen her, to be home and see us,” her mom Karen said.
“I feel like that energy and that fritz of ‘this could be the end,’ it helps you appreciate things so much more,” Mary said. “Now, I drive slower. I’m more cautious, especially in the dark. I appreciate my friends and parents more. Having that kind of death-defying moment, it gets to the core of you; it gets to your heart real quick.”