I’ve shared my story on many levels over the past 15 years. In passing to strangers, on a beach to new friends, on television shows, in magazines. I’ve shared with people I hardly know and I have not shared with some of my best and oldest friends. Sometimes when I am telling my story I can hear myself, and I think I sound like a prerecorded message. This is the part where I tell this thing…..this is where I say that…..but it’s hard. I can’t always be present in the telling, I can’t always relive the event.

However- I do love to share it with people, the connections that I have made because of this accident have helped me to recover from the trauma. The choices I have made in life because of this accident have brought me great joy and beautiful friendships. This is why I share. I used to do it for safety, I wanted people to know what could go wrong, that they needed to be prepared. Now I want to connect, whether you have been through this accident or anything else, I am sure you have suffered trauma and I believe in the power of sharing experiences to connect on a deeper level.

Here is who I am, who are you?

On the previous page I tried to give a general level of explanation of what happened the night of the accident. Here is where I tell you about my experience. When I left Seattle early September of 2000 I was heart-broken. I was recently dumped and had just graduated from college. This was the beginning of my real adult life.  I gave this trip to myself for a graduation present and hoped it would help mend my broken heart and set the stage for where I was to go in life. The first two weeks were amazing, exciting and incredibly fun. Christine and I drove the length of Israel, wandered in Jerusalem, floated in the Dead Sea, climbed Masada, snorkeled in the Red Sea, rode camels around the pyramids in Giza, I met a couple of cute boys. It was great. I was feeling much better by the time we reached Athens. I was ready to go to the beach, soak up the sun and start my new life…..then I got on board the Express Samina.  

As I mentioned before, when we boarded the ship the weather was great. I walked around the ship casually noting the bad condition of life boats, I commented to Christine that no one was driving the boat, I hadn’t realized ships had auto pilot and then I decided to relax, do some yoga on deck. I noticed the man sitting near me and his pink and yellow backpack. I thought what a strange backpack for a man wearing motorcycle attire. As night approached the weather changed and the seas became rough, I am prone to sea sickness so I decided to nap. I was woken by the sudden turning of the ferry. We could see the lights on shore in the distance, approximately 2 miles, so we decided to get ready for departing the ferry. That’s when we saw the rocks.

It was like a movie, for many reasons. First there was the silence, the encompassing dark, then the eerily lit up rocks. What are those doing there? I thought. I reached out my hand to touch the rocks in a slow motion, you aren’t real if I can’t feel you thought floated through my mind. Then I felt the hit, I stumbled a half step, the rocks continued to glide by, again we were in darkness….but you could hear it. You could hear the metal ripping apart, twisting and tearing. I could tell it was low, near or below the water line. We were outside, high up, but I could feel it in my gut. Then I thought this is it, we are going to sink, we are going to die.

This is where it gets hard for me to explain, my memories are jumbled, I can’t put an exact order to it but I will do my best. I told Christine we were going to sink, fast, we needed to get off the ship. I knew about boats living in Seattle all my life. I knew about the suction, I wanted to get off the ferry as fast as possible, but I was also absolutely terrified of the dark and in particular dark water. We found life jackets and tried to hand them out, they were hard to get out of the lifejacket box that was tied shut with ropes, we could only lift the lid less than a foot. People weren’t taking them, they were panicking, but we kept pulling them out and saying “take these, take them please”. The lights on the ferry flickered for a few minutes before finally going out. Then the flares went up, about 5 in total. The red light of flares would continue to haunt me for years, particularly during fireworks displays- they actually still do in certain situations.

The flares also told me we were in real trouble. It confirmed my thoughts that the ship was going down, and going down fast it was. We ran to a lifeboat hanging near where the rocks had just been. A man was trying to lower it with great difficulty then the lifeboat released and fell out of sight. I thought “well shit, I’m glad we weren’t in that lifeboat.” The ferry began listing more to the right with the rear sinking faster than the front. This is when a group of men ran past me and knocked me down, I hit my head on the railing. I thought this is where I die, I can’t swim if I’m not conscious. That’s when I saw Theresa, my yoga teacher, my mentor. She said to me “just breathe, just keep breathing.” I stood up and stopped, and I imagined my family, one at a time, each one of them, I told them I loved them. I felt deeply in my heart that they knew this, my parents had both been struggling with life threatening illness for the past few years. We were close, very close. I lived next door to my mom and brothers. I spent all the time I could with my dad and stepmom. They knew. They loved me too, I knew. I thought about the camping trips with my dad, the adventures with my mom and brothers, my recent graduation from university. I went through a mental checklist. That’s when I thought “I’ve done it, I’ve been doing it, all those things, all the things I thought were important, I’ve been living MY life, the way I wanted to.” That’s when I realized I had to fight, I wanted to live, I thought I was facing imminent death, drowning, in the dark….but not if I could fight, not if I could survive. 

The railing of the starboard side of the ship was going under water. The rear was going under, there were swarms of people toward the rear, jumping, screaming, running. We had to get away from them. That’s when Christine saw him, a little man up near the front port side of the ship waving us to him. It was a struggle to go toward the front of the ship, climbing up hill on the deck, in the dark, with the wind and my head throbbing. We reached the man and he waved out to a lifeboat hanging about 4-5 feet out from the ship, already being lowered but still maybe 60 feet above the water, it was hard to see and it was terrifying, we had to jump, I wasn’t sure we could make it, but we did.

When I landed in the lifeboat a woman said “hold this”. It was a rope, large and knotted, hanging in front of me, I asked why, she said she didn’t know. We quickly learned why. The lifeboat would free fall 5-10 feet at a time. We were hanging in a small wooden lifeboat by a rope at the front and a rope at the back, it would swing wildly, hitting the side of the ferry. As the ferry rolled toward it’s starboard side the lifeboat slid down the port side, into darkness. It was all we could do to stay in the lifeboat and not be thrown out. Then we hit the water and the bench I was sitting on broke pinning my ankle under the wooden bench. I felt my foot push through the bottom of the lifeboat. I thought I had just sealed our fate and we would soon sink just as the ship was sinking, lucky for us there was a false bottom and though we were taking on water we did, unbeknownst to us, have crew members aboard.

They were in the back of the lifeboat and they were fighting, cursing. They had to get the lifeboat released from the ferry, we had gone down on the side facing out to sea, where the waves were coming from, they were throwing our little lifeboat back onto the now bottom of the ferry, we would slide down and hit the water, clinging to whatever we could to stay in the lifeboat. I could barely see, there was salt water in my eyes, my head was still throbbing. Then we got away. We started to drift, out to sea, with waves continually pummeling us, first from one direction then from another. The waves were so bad that even being in a lifeboat it was hard to take a breath. Breathe, just keep breathing…..

At times I could get glimpses. I could see that the ferry was going under. I watched as the last little bit disappeared beneath the water. Then I could see lights, flickering out in the sea. There were people, some of the life jackets had water activated strobe lights. I could see people in the water far away. I could also see the lack of wreckage. I knew the people needed wreckage, they needed something to keep them afloat in this terribly rough sea.  

It was difficult to see who was with us in the lifeboat, across from me and next to Christine was a pregnant woman, her husband and a 4 year old boy. I remembered him from earlier, riding his scooter around the ferry. Next to me was the Russian woman who had told me to hold the rope, Svetlana and her now husband Dmitri, who have become part of my extended family. There was another woman behind me I think, it was dark, the waves were constantly crashing over us. There was another man, laying along the side of the lifeboat and then there were the men in the back, cursing. At some point they ordered us not to help anyone into the lifeboat, they told us we were full. There was about 10-15 of us. The father of the boy tried to speak up, to organize us over the roar of the waves and wind, he was told to shut up. It was then that I saw the eyes, swimming toward us. It was a man, and he was barely making it, barely keeping his eyes above water. I couldn’t speak, I was numb, I was also still stuck with my foot pinned. I reached out and I grabbed his hand. I held it. I looked into his eyes and I tried to say “don’t worry, I won’t let go, no matter what, I won’t let go.” I held his arm for what seemed like an eternity, I was thinking maybe someone could give me a rope, we can tie it to him, but no matter what I am not letting go. Then I felt someone reach over and help pull him into the lifeboat. It was my hero, Dmitri. The man, exhausted and wearing only his under pants, fell on top of me, and I held him, I rubbed his back. I still thought we are going to sink and probably die, but I have you now, even if that’s all I have.

We drifted in the sea, the wind and waves still punishing us. I felt very alone. We managed to pull another person into the lifeboat, but we were still far from being safe. I knew there were people out there, that they didn’t have lifeboats, that some didn’t even have life vests. I knew they were dying. All I could do was ask God, every single God I could think of, to spare them, to save them. I repeated over and over “let them be ok.” Let them all be ok.  Then there were lights, there were boats, three of them. They surrounded us, I wasn’t sure what they were doing except they were there, and they had come to save us.