Nathalia Bruno was making a food delivery Monday night in Passaic, New Jersey, and it was raining heavily. Turning a corner, she was suddenly immersed in a flash flood far too deep to escape.
With water pouring into the Toyota Prius she was driving, she dialed the police, forced open the door and dived out of the car. The flooding knocked her phone out of her hand and pulled her under the car. She grabbed for the wheels and managed to struggle to the surface before being pulled down into a covered drainage pipe, or culvert.
The water tossed Bruno down the culvert, which is about three-quarters of a mile long, at 30-40 mph, the authorities said. She grabbed at the tunnel’s walls unsuccessfully.
Despite being pulled under the water repeatedly, she was able to continue gasping for air until she tumbled out into the Passaic River and, eventually, climbed up on its bank.
The calamity almost certainly should have killed Bruno, and while she was in the culvert she thought that it would. On Thursday, in her first interview since surviving the episode, she described the experience.
Before being shot out of the tunnel, she said: “I thought ‘I’m going to die here, I don’t want to keep trying.’ But then I saw a flash of light. I thought, ‘I hope it’s not God.’”
Police officers, firefighters and city officials described her survival as a miracle.
“It’s a first for me,” said Chief Patrick Trentacost Sr. of the Fire Department in Passaic, which is about 12 miles northwest of Manhattan.
“Usually,” he added, “people don’t come out of those situations.”
The events began with a mundane delivery for DoorDash, which Bruno, 24, said she had begun working for a few weeks ago. Originally from Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil, she said she had lived in the United States off and on for about two years, often working as an au pair.
She picked up an order from a Chipotle restaurant in Nutley, where she got caught in the intense downpour that battered New Jersey on Monday, dropping 2 to 3 inches of rain in some areas and large hailstones in others.
Hector Lora, Passaic’s mayor, said that the city had done some work to mitigate flooding in the past but that a storm as intense as the one Monday was virtually impossible to prepare for.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this since Hurricane Irene,” he said.
Bruno was already drenched from taking the food order from the restaurant to her car. She sent a picture and message to her boyfriend in Brazil to let him know that she planned to head home as soon as she had made the delivery.
While she was in the tunnel, she said, she worried that the message would be the last one they shared.
As she drove to the delivery address in Clifton, the rain became so intense that she could barely see through the windshield. Relying on GPS, she turned the corner into the flood.
Bruno said she is not a good swimmer, but had taken a class when she was 5. She is also about 4 feet 8 inches tall, which may have helped her avoid debris in the culvert, which narrows to about 5 feet by 6 feet before dumping into the Passaic, Trentacost said.
“I was waiting for the minute that I would hit my head on something, my body would separate, and I would be dead and my mom and boyfriend would realize that she died, she just talked to me and she’s gone,” she said.
After being dumped into the river, Bruno said, she floated on her back for about 10 minutes and gulped air until she felt strong enough to make her way toward the shore.
And when she got to land, she said, “I tried to walk, and it was like I was drunk.”
A resident of Rutherford, where Bruno wound up, called the police. She was taken by ambulance to St. Mary’s General Hospital in Passaic. Other than a scratch and some pain in her knee and ear, she was unhurt and soon released.
With her own phone gone, Bruno borrowed one and contacted her boyfriend. He contacted her mother, who went to pick her up.
The 2005 Prius Bruno was driving got stuck in the tunnel, and the authorities had to dig it out.
“The car is totally destroyed,” Trentacost said, adding, “It makes you wonder how she maneuvered through this pressure and water.”
DoorDash said in a statement that “our thoughts and sincerest condolences” were with Bruno, who had endured a “frightening event,” and that the company would provide her with “financial assistance as well as occupational accident insurance to cover expenses.”
Bruno said she did not plan to drive again anytime soon.
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