Tommy Courtner had searched for Amber Pennell with hundreds of others for five days.
They had combed miles of winding roads in Caldwell County where they believed the 21-year-old mother of two had wrecked on her way home. Many worried they would never find her – much less alive.
On Monday night, just before rescuers were ready to give up for the day, Courtner said he was walking along U.S. 321 and was drawn to a swath of moist kudzu behind an 18 foot-embankment.
There he saw tire tracks and followed them to the edge of a 100-foot ravine. Seeing nothing at first, he turned to leave.
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Then he spotted the tip of a chrome fender shining from the bottom of the hole.
Feeling a surge of adrenalin, he called for Pennell.
“Amber,” he shouted, “can you hear me?”
Moments later, bloodied, drenched from rain and still pinned beneath the pickup's dashboard, Amber turned her head.
Courtner's heart felt like it stopped, he said.
He and crews carved a path through the kudzu to climb down to the crushed Toyota Tacoma pickup.
Lucid, but weak, Pennell begged them for something to eat and drink as paramedics filled her veins with fluids.
Rescuers pried open the truck, then used ropes and a stretcher to pull Pennell up the ravine. A helicopter airlifted her in critical condition to Carolinas Medical Center.
Most people, especially someone with Pennell's injuries, couldn't survive more than a few days without food or water, Courtner said.
The only reason she survived, he said, is because “she had the will.”
She whispered as much to her husband from her hospital bed.
“She told me she wasn't going to die and leave her children,” said Mitchell Pennell. “And she said she knew I would be looking until I found her.”
Surgeons on Tuesday were able to put a rod in Pennell's broken leg and told her family that, despite a broken arm, fractured skull and other injuries, she would likely be OK.
“If you don't believe in miracles, you should,” Caldwell County Detective BJ Fore said. “I can attest to one now.”
After work, a shopping stop
Amber Pennell called her husband just before 10 p.m. last Wednesday as she clocked out of Hannah's Bar-BQ where she's been a waitress since she was 16. She was going to go shopping and would be right home, she told him. She never arrived.
Investigators tracked Pennell from work to the Lenoir Wal-Mart where she picked up some Ol' Roy dog food, a box of laundry detergent and birthday invitations for her daughter, Gracelyn, who turns 3 on Thursday.
Surveillance video shows she then went to a gas station at the city limits where she bought $4 in gas before heading home about 10:20 p.m.
Pennell was driving north on U.S. 321 when she crossed a 30-foot-wide grassy median and two lanes of traffic about 10:45 p.m. The pickup hit an 18-foot embankment, sending the truck airborne before it plunged into a steep, 100-foot ravine covered in kudzu, State Trooper Vic Misenheimer said.
It's possible she was speeding, he said. But investigators aren't sure and haven't yet interviewed Pennell. No drugs or alcohol are suspected, and it doesn't appear she hit any type of animal, troopers said.
A 2 a.m. missing report
While Pennell lay trapped in her truck that night, her husband finished bathing Gracelyn and their son Cameron, who is 1. His wife still hadn't made it home by 11:30. He was worried.
Mitchell Pennell grabbed a spotlight and began walking up and down the mountain they live on. Around 2 a.m. he drove to Lenoir and filed a report with the sheriff's office.
His wife of four years would have called if something was wrong, he told deputies. She'd never abandon her children or husband, her friends said.
“I knew something was bad wrong,” he said.
Pennell told investigators he thought his wife had wrecked. She wasn't a great driver – highlighted in court documents by a history of speeding and other traffic charges.
Over the next five days, their children kept asking for Mommy. Pennell didn't know what to say.
“I just couldn't tell them their mommy was gone,” he said. “I tried to keep them occupied.”
The day after Amber Pennell disappeared, crews began searching a 20-mile area between the Wal-Mart and Pennell's home on Stone Mountain Road. Co-workers, who make up her second family, traded shifts and took turns to help out. Customers offered to print fliers, some even joined the search.
“This whole county has been turned inside out looking for her,” said her friend, Laci Austin. “We were never going to give up trying to find her.”
Authorities also combed U.S. 321, the main north-south route between Hickory and the resort town of Blowing Rock.
Courtner, the county's emergency services director, said he prayed: “God, give me something,” he said.
Searchers refuse to quit
On Monday, the fifth day of searching, rescue crews made their way back to U.S. 321 at about 3 p.m., working in sometimes heavy rain and fog.
“We didn't want to give up until we ruled out every hole,” Fore said.
Just before it began raining again, rescuers planned to end the day's search. But they decided to keep going, and Courtner spotted the tire tracks.
About 8 p.m., Mitchell Pennell's phone kept ringing with people asking: Was it true? Have they found her? Minutes later, a rescuer ran toward him with the news.
Mitchell Pennell caught his breath and wept. “It was the most amazing feeling,” he said. “I couldn't get to her quick enough.”
Tuesday night Amber Pennell was asking for her children, but doesn't remember the accident.
“She's so strong,” her husband said. “Last night she told me, because of her two babies, she wasn't going to die on them.”