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Originally published May 24, 2013 at 1:42 PM | Page modified May 24, 2013 at 9:01 PM

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As car sinks, young man keeps cool, finds escape

Bryce Kenning said he was able to momentarily slam on his brakes as he saw the bridge collapsing. He flew into a giant puff of dust and down into the river.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As a serious hockey player, 20-year-old Bryce Kenning has taken some pretty hard hits.

He was prepared for more at a pickup hockey game in Bellingham on Thursday night. What he wasn’t prepared for was a nose dive off the edge of the crumbling Interstate 5 bridge spanning the Skagit River.

If his passenger-side door hadn’t been slightly ajar after the crash, Kenning said, he might not have gotten out of his car alive.

Kenning, of Mount Vernon, said he was able to momentarily slam on his brakes as he saw the bridge collapsing in front of his orange Subaru. He flew into a giant puff of dust and down into the river.

“I saw the trusses falling with me, and I seemed to fall perfectly in the middle of everything,” Kenning said.

When he landed in the water, the back of his car had been smashed and water was pouring in, reaching belly-height. He said it was too late to get out his driver-side window or door and there was too much water in front of his windshield to try to crack it and escape.

“As part of a last-ditch effort, I calmed down a little bit and noticed the passenger-side door was open a little,” he said. With a couple hard hits on the door, he was able to open it and climb atop the Subaru.

Kenning said he looked around to make sure anyone else who plunged off the bridge was OK. A pickup was resting in the water nearby. Kenning said he was impressed to watch how, despite bleeding from his head and having suffered a dislocated shoulder, 47-year-old Dan Sligh, of Oak Harbor, fought to keep his wife, Sally, above water and calm.

“At that point, I’m wondering if the bridge is done falling — is my car going to explode? Do I try to swim to the bank?” Kenning said. But first responders on the bridge told him and the Slighs to stay put until rescuers were able to reach them about an hour later.

Meanwhile, several friends knew immediately that the orange Subaru shown on live TV news coverage was probably Kenning’s, and they started calling his family.

The first caller was the mother of one of Kenning’s friends.

“She asked me, ‘Do you know where Bryce is?’ ” said Kenning’s mother, Sheila Kenning. “And I don’t talk to this woman, so I was like, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ ”

As soon as the caller explained what had happened, Kenning’s mother said she rushed out the door to the hospital.

A friend also texted Kenning’s sister, Claire, who was at a gym in Everett with their father, Barrie.

“I just broke down crying and my father said, ‘Calm down. It’s a one-in-a-million chance it’s Bryce,’ ” she said. “Then when we found out, my father couldn’t stop crying.”

After spending more than two hours “talking to God like I’ve never,” Sheila said, she was the first family member to find Bryce safe and sound.

“You just go from utter disbelief that this is happening to, ‘Oh my God, he’s whole, he’s OK,’ ” Sheila said. “He was comforting me.”

Though the orange 2013 Subaru Crosstrek that the Kennings bought in January didn’t last long, Sheila said she was just glad the car did its job.

“To think of what would have happened if he’d been driving our old pickup — it’s a horrible thought,” she said.

After getting home at midnight, the family ate together and decided to lighten things up with some episodes of the TV show “The Office.” They got less than an hour of sleep before media from across the country started calling at 6 a.m., but said they were grateful to share a story that ended much happier than it could have. The Slighs also survived the fall.

“It’s shocking that no one else was on the bridge at the time,” Kenning said. “Even to the split-second, it was the most lucky scenario.”

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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