Zoe Avery is a freshman finance major from Bowling Green. While walking the way she did every day to her car after school, Avery fell into a manhole. She said one thing that she learned from this experience was that "anything we could do could kill us." (Photos by Ragan Harrington)
Everyone’s experience with death can differ. For some, it might be like falling asleep or turning the lights out. For others, time might slow down and the people most memorable to them — the people they are leaving behind — come to mind.
Some survive their encounter with death, however, acting just in time to avoid death’s cold hands.
Here are the stories of three survivors who lived to tell their near-death experiences.
Many hope that when they drive onto the highway, they will be fortunate enough not to get into a vehicle collision. The truth is that every car ride is a gamble.
Mayfield freshman Yenni Gonzalez took that gamble, and it almost cost her life. On a trip to Mayfield to visit her family, Gonzalez had an almost fatal highway collision.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said.
During the fall semester of 2022, Gonzalez said she was hanging out with her friends before deciding she wanted to see her parents for the weekend. She got in her car, drove onto the highway and headed toward home.
She didn’t make it unscathed.
Gonzalez said she had made the two-hour trip before. Although this time, she said a semitruck merged into the far right lane that she was driving in. The semitruck sideswiped her 2016 Nissan Altima, resulting in Gonzalez’s tires popping.
Gonzalez said that during her accident, time slowed down.
“It felt like it was going on forever, even though it wasn’t,” she said.
Gonzalez said she kept thinking of her father. During her accident, she said she thought “Man, my dad’s gonna get me in trouble ‘cause I messed up the car.”
She said the semitruck driver continued trying to merge into the occupied lane, resulting in a second collision. Her vehicle spun out of control, and Gonzalez said she lost her senses.
“There was a moment where I know it, like, went black for a little bit where I couldn’t hear anything or see anything,” Gonzalez said.
She said that the “darkness” only lasted a few seconds.
“I don’t even know if I was pressing the gas or the brake,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said she thought of her father’s advice for hydroplaning. She turned her wheels and pressed herself back into her seat to try and prevent whiplash.
When the vehicle finally stopped spinning, the first person she called was her father.
Gonzalez’s car landed in the median. She said she was stuck inside of her vehicle because the driver’s side of the car was totaled, and she couldn’t move.
Gonzalez said she was very scared, and due to her heightened emotions, she didn’t realize her seatbelt was still on, which additionally kept her from moving.
She was stuck until drivers in four passing cars who saw the accident pulled over and removed her. One person broke her rear, passenger-side window, climbed inside and helped pull her out because the doors wouldn’t open from the outside.
Gonzalez said she ended up in the emergency room on three separate occasions after the accident due to chronic injuries.
She said that the doctors who originally saw her told her she didn’t have any injuries.
“They told me I didn’t have anything, but turns out I had brain trauma,” Gonzalez said.
She was diagnosed with a concussion, memory loss, a speech impediment and vertigo. Gonzalez now attends physical therapy and has seen slow improvements.
“I didn’t know how it was that I didn’t die,” Gonzalez said. “The police officer told me and some of the people from the hospital told me that if (the semitruck) was within a couple inches closer, I would have been dead.”
Gonzalez said she speculates that if she hadn’t directed her wheels and braced herself in her seat, she would have flipped the car and died on impact or because of a head injury.
“It was really scary,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said she is glad that she didn’t die. However, the trauma of the accident still haunts her.
“I went to Georgia about a week ago and I was, like, absolutely terrified. I was, like, crying the whole way there, and that’s a six-hour drive,” she said.
Gonzalez said she is currently dealing with her family’s impending lawsuit against the truck driver. She said she is suing not only for vehicle damages, but for medical bills, declined mental health and time wasted.
Gonzalez said the accident has additionally negatively impacted her semester.
“I have gone from, like, having straight As to like barely passing my class,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez may be traumatized by her experience with death, but lasting effects of a close encounter with death can differ.
Bowling Green freshman Zoe Avery said she is grateful for the life lessons her near-death experience taught her.
In January 2022, Avery was walking to her car after school when she fell into an unsecured maintenance hole, the access point to underground sewers, storm drains and gas pipes, near her high school’s parking lot.
According to the United States Department of Labor, a fall into a maintenance hole could lead to injury or death from falling or suffocation from breathing deadly gasses.
Avery said her high school was under construction at the time, so the workers were often working with the manholes. This time, though, one of the connecting covers was not replaced correctly.
Taking the same route to her car as she always did, Avery said she mindlessly stepped onto a manhole.
“Unfortunately for me, this time it decided to swallow me,” Avery said.
Avery said the feeling of falling through the manhole was similar to being on a roller coaster.
“I remember feeling that drop, but it was so unanticipated,” Avery said.
She said she had no idea what had happened.
“My mind was racing, and yet it was nowhere,” she said.
Avery said that when she fell through the hole, her right leg got caught on the ladder that the construction workers use to climb down the drain. Her left leg was completely inside the tunnel, and she said she never felt the bottom.
She said she held onto the sides of the tunnel, and, along with her caught leg, was prevented from falling completely into the depths of the manhole.
Avery said her thoughts were jumbled, but she remembered thinking about the construction workers at her school. She wondered if they could hear or see her.
After realizing that there was no one around to save her, Avery said her thoughts turned dark. She said she wonders what would’ve happened if she had fallen to the bottom.
“If I would have fallen into this, would I have just been lost? Would I’ve been stuck down here and no one find me?” Avery said.
Avery said that her fight or flight response kicked in after that. There was no one around; she had to get herself out. If she didn’t, she would die, she believed.
She said she grabbed the ladder and moved her left leg onto it, then bent her right leg and removed it from where it was caught.
Grabbing the opening of the manhole, Avery said she was able to pull herself out.
“As I crawled myself out of that manhole, I thought about my mom,” Avery said.
She said her mom is a single mother of three who is constantly dealing with unexpected circumstances. “I thought of her strength, and I feel like that’s what helped me,” Avery said.
She said she refused to give up and leave her family behind. Once Avery was finally out of the manhole, she said she was only able to gather her phone, keys and water bottle before she collapsed crying.
“I just started sobbing because I was scared,” Avery said.
She said she wondered how it could have been worse; if she had hit her head on the cover, hit her head on the bottom or if the lid would have closed, no one would be able to find her.
“I would have been gone,” Avery said.
Avery said she left the scene and went straight to her mother.
She said she told her mom that she fell into a hole. However, Avery said due to her vagueness, her mother thought she was referencing how awful her high school experience had been.
When she finally got home, she said the adrenaline wore off and she realized how badly injured she was. However, due to a severe snowstorm, she missed her opportunity to go to the hospital.
She said both of her knees were extremely swollen, and she had trouble walking.
Avery said she regrets not going to the hospital when she could.
“I was trying to be tough,” Avery said.
Avery is now fully recovered, but she said that even a year after the event, she is wary of manholes.
“Every time I drive over them, I hear it under my tires and get a little anxiety. I never step on them at campus,” Avery said.
Despite the traumatic events, Avery said she chooses to focus on the positive.
Avery said that it further proved to her that terrible things can happen for a reason; it helped her gain perspective. If she wanted to do something in life, she would do so instead of pushing it off.
“Just being in that, like, surreal moment, that surreal event in my life showed me that anything could happen, and if you want to go do something, just do it,” Avery said.
Avery said she isn’t severely impacted by the near-death experience.
“It’s the best icebreaker. Like, ‘Hi, I’m Zoe; I fell into a sewer drain,’” Avery said.
Dying on an ordinary day can be a shocking and sobering reality, a reminder that life is fragile and fleeting. It can be a reminder to make the most of each day and to cherish the time with loved ones.
Avery said she made this discovery alone. Providence junior Hannah Smith was with her loved ones when she narrowly missed death’s kiss.
During Memorial Day weekend in 2022, Smith and her family stayed at Outback RV Resort in Eddyville where their camper has a seasonal spot.
A family friend asked them if they would like to spend the day on their boat with them and their kids, and Smith and her family accepted the invite.
“I was excited. One of our favorite things to do as a family (and) friend group is go drive around and hang out on the lake,” Smith said.
Smith said the adults and older children stayed on the boats while the children tubed in the water.
“That day was no different. It was just a relaxed, fun day on the lake,” Smith said.
After tubing, Smith said her group ran into some more friendly faces and tied their boats together. Her family put their anchors down and set up their lily pad, a flotation water mat, after the group was situated.
The weather forecast predicted rain, but Smith said her family carried on with their day. Smith said a member of their group was keeping watch on the forecast while she and her family played in the lake.
“We thought they knew how to accurately read it. Obviously, we were wrong,” Smith said.
Smith and her family were not spared from the rain when it began to pour, and the wind picked up.
“The water was crazy rough, like ocean rough,” Smith said.
At the time, Smith and a couple more of the kids were sitting on the lily pad. Smith said the water around them was hard to navigate, making it difficult to swim.
She said that their only option was to sit still and wait for the storm to pass. While they were waiting, they noticed the current pulling in a large houseboat.
It was headed straight toward them.
The boat was so close to Smith that she said she could hear the other boat’s passengers yelling for them to move.
Smith said she remembered feeling frustrated with the yacht’s crew. It would be faster for the members of the other boat to move than for her party’s boat to pull up their anchor and speed away, she said.
Before her family and friends could lift the anchor, they needed the occupants of the lily pad to swim about 30 feet to get to the boat. Smith said it wasn’t an easy feat with the wind.
The strong currents were not in their favor, she said.
“It was, like, eight people on this lily pad trying to swim the lily pad back to the boat with this giant houseboat just moving toward us, closer and closer,” Smith said.
Smith said she wasn’t focused on herself but the people around her.
“My mom was terrified. In my 20 years of life, I’ve never seen her that scared,” Smith said.
Smith’s sister and mother were on the boat. Smith said she felt relieved knowing her little sister was safe on the boat. She said she spent a lot of time with her sister and felt responsible for her.
She said adrenaline took over for her, and she didn’t have time to be scared; she kept thinking about how she just needed to get to the boat.
“There were a lot of kids that were with us, so I think that’s more where my mind was,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Just let’s focus on the kids and get them up onto the boat first.’”
Smith said one of the children who was previously on the lily pad with her was in the water as the yacht approached.
Smith said the girl was trying to get onto the lily pad, but the water was fighting against her.
She said she felt a responsibility to save the girl because she was close in age to her sister.
“I literally hung, like, half of my body off of the lily pad and held my arm out for her to grab and yanked her onto the lily pad,” Smith said.
Smith said she was the only person to notice that the girl was struggling in the water. Once she got the girl onto the lily pad, Smith had to move, or they would either drown or be hit by the other boat.
Smith said she had to focus all her energy on swimming. Due to the strong currents, the swim to safety wasn’t an easy one.
Smith said she’s a decent swimmer, but swimming against the current was difficult.
“I don’t think I’ve ever swam so hard in my life,” Smith said.
The group on the lily pad made it to the boat just in time to release the anchor, untie their boats and speed away, she said.
Smith said she believes that the life jackets they had on and the fact they managed to hang on to the lily pad saved them from drowning.
“We could have easily been dragged by that water,” Smith said.
Smith said once they finally got onto the boat, the kids started sobbing, but she was more in shock.
Despite the events of the day, she said the next afternoon they were back on the lake.
“Nothing changed after that day,” Smith said.
She said that because of the situation she thinks she is very resourceful in emergencies.
“I don’t regret being out there that day. If I hadn’t been out there, there is a chance that one of the kids we were with would have been swept out with the current,” Smith said.