A 22-year-old nursing student feels "lucky to be alive" after a daring pre-dawn jump Thursday from a Dawsonville Highway bridge, a leap taken to avoid a truck headed toward her on the icy road, she said.
Bianca Vera suffered a broken vertebrate and serious bruises to her legs and body when she hit Lake Lanier. She was also treated for hypothermia.
"I'm OK. I'm just in pain," Vera said by phone from her hospital room. "I do feel like I'm lucky to be alive. There were plenty of occasions this morning where I could've died."
Icy conditions early Thursday morning caused dozens of accidents and at least one death in North Georgia, as reports of skidding cars, collisions and overturned vehicles kept emergency workers busy throughout the morning commute.
Vera was on her way to school at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega when the accident occurred. The chain of events began around 5:50 a.m., she said, when a driver in an oncoming car clipped Vera's Silver Nissan X Terra and kept going.
As a result of the collision, Vera's vehicle brushed the concrete railing. She pulled over to check the damage to her car, which was then minimal, she said.
But as Vera climbed back into her car she saw more traffic headed in her direction.
The headlights of a tractor-trailer were headed toward her, Vera said.
"I knew I didn't have enough time to get back in the car. If I did, I knew I was not going to live because it was going really fast," she said. "As I'm in the air, I can hear the semi truck hitting my car. I hit the water, had the wind knocked out of me. I get back up to the surface and at that point I was in a lot of pain, I started swimming toward the shore."
By the time Gainesville Police officers arrived at the scene, there was a series of collisions and a pileup approaching 10 vehicles. Gainesville Fire Department joined the efforts to locate and treat those who were injured.
But no one realized Vera was in the lake, swimming slowly to an embankment.
As a junior in nursing school, she focused on hypothermia, how it shuts down the body, and what she could do to prevent it.
"I just knew that I had to keep on moving, I couldn't stay in one spot," Vera said.
Vera saw the police lights as she was swimming to the embankment but heard no one.
She did not believe anyone knew she had jumped.
"It was a surprise to the policeman when they saw someone on the bank," she said.
Traffic investigators supported Vera's account of the accident late Thursday night but did not want to furnish any specifics until today, police spokesman Kevin Holbrook said.
The crashes shut down the highway for a period of time as Gainesville Fire rescuers negotiated the embankment to remove Vera from the scene.
"It had at least an hour impact on traffic," Holbrook said, "And, of course, the rescue efforts took some time."
In addition to the Dawsonville Highway bridge, several accidents occurred between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Thompson Bridge Road, Holbrook said. A vehicle also overturned on Ga. 60 North.
None of the three accidents resulted in serious injuries, he added.
In Hall County, another 67 weather-related traffic accidents happened between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. in unincorporated areas, said the Sheriff's Office spokesman, Col. Jeff Strickland. Six of those involved injuries. None were life threatening, he said.
"The common factor in the accidents was black ice," Strickland said.
One of the most serious incidents involved Michelle Grimes, 38, of Gainesville who lost control of her 2004 Expedition, which struck a telephone pole as it overturned in a ditch on Tanners Mill and Ponderosa Farm roads at 6:54 a.m.
Her daughters, ages 7 and 10, were in the car at the time.
Hall County Fire Services used the Jaws of Life hydraulic rescue tool to free Grimes from the car.
The family was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Everyone in the car was in a child seat or wearing their seat belts, Strickland said.
Another accident blocked one lane of Interstate 985 between 6:20 a.m. and 7 a.m. There were no injuries in the wreck, in which cars skidded along the concrete median and guard rail.
"We closed one lane, kept one open," he said. "Any time there is an accident on 985, there will always be some traffic congestion involved."
In Jackson County, a 54-year-old Lawrence man was killed instantly when the pickup truck he was driving slid out of control on ice and struck a tree on the 6200 block of Highway 332, Georgia State Patrol dispatchers said.
The vehicle, which landed in a creek between Boone and Sam Freeman roads, was on fire when rescue workers arrived shortly after the accident happened around 8:21 a.m., said West Jackson Fire Chief Ben Stephens.
The wreck was one of 27 weather-related car accidents in Jackson County Thursday morning. Eight of those calls involved injuries, said Jackson Emergency Services Director Steve Nichols.