After the crash
There was no time to climb out of the Swift before it was under the waves.
Lanny tried to release his mother from her seat, but he couldn’t find the belt latch under her bulky sweater. He resurfaced without her.
But right behind him she “bobbed up like a cork.”
Lanny saw a seat cushion, a headset pouch and a plastic bag filled with frozen soup floating around them. He grabbed the freezer bag and pulled out the soup, then tried to fill the bag with air, but it wouldn’t stay inflated.
His mother seemed dazed, Lanny said, but she was able to float on her back. Lanny was furiously treading water, which hovered around 70 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
At least 20 minutes passed before Mary asked Lanny if they’d been in a crash.
Soon after the crash, helicopters and small planes appeared in the sky, and Lanny was certain they’d been seen.
The Maryland State Police used two helicopters in the search. The Coast Guard sent out an aircraft and a boat. Maryland Natural Resources Police assisted with two boats.
“We waved and we splashed. We waved and we splashed. We waved and we splashed,” Lanny said. “And we get nothing.” They treaded water for an hour before Lanny decided they needed to head to shore, which he could see only from the peaks of the highest waves.
As Mary swam, she continued to veer off course. Lanny, exhausted by righting her path, instructed her to float on her back. He pushed his mother by her legs, as if her head were the bow of a boat, chopping through the waves.
The pushing went on for an hour, as Lanny tried to get them closer to the coast. That’s when Mary told him to hold her hand.
He told her he couldn’t tread water next to her and still make progress toward shore. But with greater urgency, Mary began pleading with him.
Then he lied — saying that he could see nearby houses, getting bigger by the minute.
His mother kicked her legs, and Lanny took two strokes and went back to push her again. Her legs were limp.
Mary was dead.
Lanny was getting close. He could finally see lights on the shore.
But a marsh and a bay, called Shanks Creek, still separated him from the twinkling lights of Smith Island’s Rhodes Point.
The hour spent crawling through the bog was the most physically demanding part of the journey, Lanny said, and his body began to falter. Lean and strong, he had been on a fitness kick during the 10 weeks leading up to the crash and thinks it improved his chances of survival.
“I knew I wouldn’t drown, but I was in and out and in and out of the water with the wind and the sticky, stinking mud, crawling on my hands and knees, fighting fatigue and hypothermia,” he said.
He focused on a bright, yellow glow at one home. He could see lights through a window.
“I guess it was about 8 o’clock, I’m starting to watch a ball game, a football game, and I heard somebody come to my door bang and yell, ‘Help me. Help me,’ ” said William “Max” Cline.
Cline was not entirely surprised to see Lanny, dripping at the door. He’d seen and heard the search helicopters going back and forth all evening.
Lanny told Cline about his mother, how he’d tried to push her to shore until he realized that she was lifeless.
“He wasn’t upset. I think he was just in shock,” Cline said. “He never really cried or nothing.” He put Lanny in the shower to warm up. “He couldn’t hardly talk, he was so cold,” Cline said. “I turned the water on him, then I come out and called 911.”
Soon the rescue teams took over. Cline hadn’t even learned Lanny’s name before he was flown, by helicopter, to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.
Leslie Marsh, Cline’s daughter-in-law, called Allison. Within 10 seconds, Marsh said, Allison asked about Lanny’s mother.
“She was kind of hysterical some,” said Marsh, who lives next door to Cline. “… I think the only thing she really understood was that he was alive.”
After midnight, Lance and Allison arrived at the hospital.
Lance recalls: “When I walked in, he just burst into tears. ‘Dad, I killed my mother.’ ”