Natalie Griffin, a 19-year-old college student survived a car crash that killed her best friend on Wednesday by clinging to a tree for 12 hours during a winter storm before swimming through freezing waters to reach safety the next day.
Jenna Santos and Natalie Griffin, both 19, were driving on Highway 101 toward the Castro Valley when Santos’ car hydroplaned, flipping several times before crashing into a swollen creek about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, The East Bay Times reported.
Water was rushing into the vehicle as the pair unsuccessfully tried kicking through the 2004 Toyota Corolla’s windshield, but eventually Griffin realized there was another escape route, her cousin, Monica Keyser, told the paper.
“She started to panic and told herself to calm down. That’s when she noticed a broken window in the back and showed Jenna. She told her to follow her,” Keyser said. “When she surfaced, she wasn’t sure if she had made it out.”
The current dragged Griffin down the creek before she was able to grab onto a partially submerged tree, pulling herself into the branches where she sat out the winter storm until daybreak, her cousin said.
“She said she stayed really calm,” Keyser said of her cousin, who managed to make a shelter with her jacket to protect herself from frigid temperatures, which dipped to 28 degrees that night.
An avid runner, yogi and believer in meditation, Griffin reportedly did stretches to keep herself warm.
“She was hallucinating and hearing Jenna talking, telling her she was going to be OK. There were points where she thought Jenna was with her. She remembers thinking they found a phone,” Keyser told the Times.
Griffin eventually swam across the creek and climbed a thorn-covered hill to make it to the highway, flagging down a motorist who stopped when he saw she was soaking wet and wearing only one shoe.
The California Highway Patrol responded to reports of the accident at 8:19 a.m. Thursday. The investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing.
Santos was found inside the vehicle, which was submerged about 300 feet from shore, the Times wrote.
Griffin was hospitalized with hypothermia and minor scrapes, but was released later that day.
She remained in shock after the accident that claimed the life of her best friend, a fellow graduate of the Castro Valley High School class of 2015 who was attending Humboldt State University.
“Natalie is scratched, bruised, and stitched up. There are many moments of sadness for her reliving the horrific accident and losing beautiful Jenna,” Griffin’s mother wrote on Facebook.
Santos and Griffin had reportedly been returning from a few days hiking and visiting friends.
Griffin and her family have set up a GoFundMe page to help Santos’s family pay for funeral costs.