Teen did everything right when encountering downed power lines

Mary Gehrig was hanging out with a friend. Realizing a storm was brewing, she pulled the weather card as an excuse not to leave. As teens often do, Mary led with her most compelling reason. “Oh no, I can’t come home right now. It’s dangerous.”

Her mom was not buying it. Karen Gehrig’s maternal instinct kicked in, and like moms everywhere, she wanted her daughter home before the skies opened. Mary reluctantly headed home around 9 p.m.

On any other evening, 17-year-old Mary’s protest about coming home, mixed with a smidge of teenage attitude, might have been nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone in the family would be safe and sound. Come morning, they would make small talk over muffins and orange juice. However, on this night, the evening unfolded in a way no one anticipated.

Her ride home started fine. It was raining, but nothing Mary couldn’t handle. “I’ve never really been afraid to drive in storms,” she explained.

As she got closer to home, things took a turn for the worse. Many cars had pulled off to the side of the road due to low visibility caused by torrential rains, but since she was almost home, she thought she would keep going.

The storm took a drastic turn and got so bad that she was driving blind.

She made one of her last turns onto a county road and saw flashes of lightning illuminating glimpses of white lines in the distance, but she could not tell what they were. By the time she realized there was something on the road, she knew it was too late. She slammed on the brakes and her car struck whatever was in the road. She said her next thought was, “Oh my gosh, what did I do.”

She hit a massive, high-voltage transmission power line. The storm damaged several structures and brought down the lines. Although transmission towers are designed to withstand all kinds of weather, many were irreversibly damaged due to the storm, which became much more volatile than originally forecasted.

“You’re looking at all these towers, and they’re doing toe touches,” said Chris Gehrig, Mary’s dad.

After Mary’s car came to a stop, she says it began malfunctioning and was rendered undrivable. It was a life-changing moment that could have gone either way, depending on what she did next.

Fortunately, Mary’s next thought was to call her parents.

“When we learned that she had hit a power line, we told her in no uncertain terms to, ‘Stay put. Don’t move. Don’t do anything. Call 911,’” Chris recalled.

Although Mary experienced a full range of emotions while waiting in her car, she could not get out and first responders could not approach until it was confirmed the power lines were de-energized. This process took time since the transmission lines were not local and spanned several states. Her local electric cooperative worked closely with the company that owned the transmission lines to ensure no one would get hurt.

If Mary would have gotten out, which she admits she did consider doing at one point, her body could have become the path to ground for the stray voltage and she could have been electrocuted. However, Mary stayed put, and the Gehrigs hope others will learn from her experience. Her family is quick to credit everyone involved with her safe recovery.

After returning home in the early morning hours, “she was very happy, probably happier than I’ve ever seen her, to be home and see us,” Karen said.

“I feel like that energy and that fritz of ‘this could be the end,’ it helps you appreciate things so much more,” Mary said. “Now, I drive slower. I’m more cautious, especially in the dark. I appreciate my friends and parents more. Having that kind of death-defying moment, it gets to the core of you; it gets to your heart real quick.”

To watch Mary’s story and to learn more, visit SafeElectricity.org.