The morning of May 16, 2016, started like any other for Jennifer Duncan. As she drove her eight-month-old son to school, though, her life would change forever. After getting into a fender bender on the highway, Duncan removed her son from the car and moved to safety. But, incredibly, another crash then unfolded before her eyes and a vehicle came hurtling toward her. As a result, she and her baby were thrown over the side of the bridge.
On that fateful day, Duncan, who is 24 years old and comes from Waco, Texas, had woken up at 6:00 a.m. as usual. On her way to drop off her son, Daniel Vela, at day care she headed over the I-35 bridge above Fourth Street. It was there that her life would change forever.
At around 7:00 a.m., Duncan was involved in a collision with a vehicle on the bridge. The other driver was subsequently named as 25-year-old Ashley Michelle Anderson from Keller, Texas. Although further details of the incident are sketchy, it was described by local news station KXXV as a mere “fender bender.”
After the collision, both Duncan and Anderson pulled over to the roadside and got out of their vehicles. Duncan grabbed her son from his car seat before standing alongside Anderson on the interstate’s shoulder. Seemingly in a safe place away from the traffic, both women then waited for first responders to arrive.
However, while the two women waited, a second crash occurred. A vehicle ploughed into one of the stationary cars, hurling it directly toward Duncan, who was cradling her eight-month-old baby. The car hit the mom, who was thrown over the side of the bridge while still holding her son.
“I just remember praying, ‘God, please don’t let my baby die,’” Duncan said in a statement released via her lawyer following the incident. Indeed, as she fell off the bridge, her one thought was to protect her son. But she only had a split second to react.
Whether it was a conscious move or just maternal instinct taking over, Duncan formed a human shield around her son. “The first thing I did was bring my knees up around his body and my hands around his head,” she would tell Today in January 2017. “I just cradled him and held him tightly.”
“My main concern was keeping him safe, making sure he was going to be okay. I didn’t know what to expect moment by moment,” Duncan also explained to KXXV days after the accident. “I just took like one second look and seeing that we were falling, I just tried to grab as tight as I can to him.”
Duncan fell approximately 30 feet before she smashed into the ground below. “It seemed like only two seconds to land and the next thing I knew, I was laying there and my son was laying beside me,” she told Today. “I tried to get closer to him, and I couldn’t move at all.”
Miraculously, however, her son also survived the fall. And despite the massive drop and the impact it could potentially have had on the eight-month-old, Duncan’s cocoon worked. In fact, the baby escaped with only a scratched forehead. His mom, however, wasn’t so lucky.
Duncan’s efforts to protect her son resulted in serious injuries of her own. A combination of the impact of the vehicle on the bridge and the subsequent fall would leave her with life-changing injuries.
Specifically, the wounds she sustained resulted in Duncan’s left leg being amputated below the knee. In addition, she had fractured legs and ribs, a shattered pelvis and nine broken vertebrae. She also suffered internal injuries, including damage to her spleen.
Duncan would subsequently spend two months in hospital following the crash. And even after being discharged, she still had to attend regular rehab sessions. In the space of seven months, moreover, she had a total of 14 operations to fix her injuries. It’s likely, too, that she will need more in the future, on top of her physical therapy.
So as her son learned to walk while Duncan was in hospital, she too would have learn to walk again. By January 2017, though, she had recovered sufficiently to move about in a wheelchair; she was also starting to use a walker.
“Rehab was difficult,” Duncan admitted to KXXV. “Learning to move again, learning to even get yourself dressed. Now I’m learning how to walk on the one leg and I’m anxious to walk with both and get back with [my son] playing at the park.”
Duncan continued, “All in all it was very hard. Mainly because I would look at [Daniel] and be like, ‘I want to pick you up but I can’t.’ So it’s a difficult process.” As during the incident itself, however, it’s her son that comes first. Indeed, she has credited him with motivating her to keep fighting on.
And though Duncan suffers from constant migraines, severe pain and physical limitations, her main ambition is a simple one. “I want to be able to walk with my son,” she told Today. “That’s my major goal. I definitely need to catch up with him.”
Prior to the accident, Duncan worked as a carhop for fast-food chain Sonic. Regularly pulling double shifts, she was paying her way through a full-time course at cosmetology school. She still plans to return to the course and fulfill her childhood dream of working in the beauty industry.
Unfortunately, though, Duncan still has a long road to recovery ahead of her. Though she gave up her new home to live with her parents, her medical bills are still mounting. In fact, they are expected to exceed $1 million eventually. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help her, as $40,000 is needed just for a prosthetic leg. But the mom battles on.
“I don’t give up because I know [my son is] looking at me to be his role model and so I try not to give up,” Duncan told KXXV. “I just try to keep moving forward and living each day as if we’re still blessed the same way we were [before the accident]. Getting to walk with him would be a good way to start.”