Amber Pennell remembers being trapped beneath the dashboard of her husband's pickup truck, her body crunched into an L-shape. Sharp pain pierced her legs and left arm.
The Caldwell County mother of two remembers hearing the whir of a helicopter above the crushed truck.
She couldn't even whisper, she recalls – it was sort of like choking while trying to speak in a dream.
In her mind she remembers praying: “I asked God to please, please let me be found … please, somebody come get me and take me home.”
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And they did – after nearly a weeklong search that has drawn attention from national news networks, even “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” relatives say.
Pennell this weekend saw her children and on Saturday for the first time met the people who rescued her from the side of a mountain.
On Sunday, wearing a pink polka dot robe and sipping soup, she met with the Observer as tearful friends streamed in and out of her hospital room.
After numerous surgeries to her legs and arm relatives say she is expected to recover, though she will have to spend time in physical therapy.
Surrounded by balloons and rose bouquets she smiled at gifts sent from friends and a note next to a cross that says simply: “I'm so glad you survived.”
Pennell, 21, called her husband Mitchell just before 10 p.m. Aug. 20 as she clocked out of Hannah's Bar-BQ where she's worked for six years. She stopped by the Lenoir Wal-Mart to get some groceries, got $4 in gas at the Holiday to Go and then headed home.
She can't remember much but recalls seeing a logging truck before wrecking the Toyota Tacoma on U.S. 321 about two miles north of Lenoir.
The Toyota crossed a 30-foot-wide grassy median and two lanes of traffic before hitting an 18-foot embankment. The truck went airborne before plunging down a steep 100-foot ravine draped in kudzu.
State troopers said Pennell was probably speeding but they haven't yet interviewed her. No drugs or alcohol are suspected in the wreck, which was hidden by the embankment and shrouded from searchers for days.
Troopers said there isn't any evidence that Pennell hit another vehicle or animal. And it's unlikely she could have fallen asleep having just left the city limits, they said.
“We really don't know why or what caused her to run off the road like that – there are some things that only she will be able to answer,” State Trooper Cliff Mangum said. “I just wish we could have found her sooner.”
At home, Mitchell Pennell, a correctional officer, scrambled to search for his wife that night – thinking she might have wrecked. Worried co-workers joined by foot the next day.
“Her children are the world to her,” said co-worker Misty Walker. “She would never leave her children.”
While hundreds searched for days – in heat and rain – Pennell remembers lying there, unable to move, wetting her pants and cupping one hand to catch rain to drink. She bit her fingernails down to the skin. There were Hot Pockets she'd just bought somewhere in the cab of the truck, but she couldn't reach them, she told the Observer Sunday.
Pennell didn't realize how close she was to dying.
“I guess if I thought I was that close, I would have died,” she says. “I don't think I ever let myself get to that point.”
Losing her mother at 18 and her father just last year may have played a part.
“I remember when my uncle knocked on my door when my mother died and he said to me – ‘she's not on earth anymore…' I thought to myself , ‘Am going to lose my mind?' ” she says. “No child should ever have to hear that.”
And while lying in the wrecked pick-up Pennell said she kept listening for anything – anyone.
Mostly she could hear her 3-year-old daughter Graceyln's giggle and the sounds of her 1-year-old son Cameron playing over and over in her head.
“I believe with all my heart that things happen for a reason,” Mitchell Pennell said, playing with his wife's hair and reminding her she is beautiful. “This really brings it home.”
Paramedics told the family Pennell probably would have died if she'd been out there one more day. They also said she might have bled to death had she been moved soon after the wreck, said family friend Greg Beucler.
On Sunday, Pennell kept saying she couldn't believe she was in the truck five days. It's like a blur she recalls, but remembering hearing some voices, some people talking a few times, maybe even last Monday when Tommy Courtner was drawn to the kudzu behind the embankment. There he saw tire tracks and followed them to the edge of the ravine. Seeing nothing at first, he turned to leave.
Then he spotted the tip of a chrome fender shining from the bottom of the hole.
“Amber,” he shouted, “can you hear me?”
Moments later she turned her head.