Man OK after car launches off US-131, drops 40 feet

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids man’s morning commute ended with a totaled car and a story that sounds more like a stunt scene than a winter driving experience in Michigan.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. Feb. 12, Michigan State Police Trooper Brandon Golden got a call that a car had gone off southbound US-131 near the Fulton Street bridge. 

“I’ve taken a couple of them where the vehicle has left the freeway and (the driver) didn’t fare so well,” Golden told News 8 Friday.

This scene was just the opposite.

“I grabbed my med kit and he was standing out of the car already,” the trooper recalled.

Diver Dave Zmudka looked more like he had just been in a fender bender than a more than 40-foot plunge off the side of the highway. 

He started his commute getting on US-131 from Pearl Street. He told News 8 he hit black ice as he accelerated, fishtailed and realized he was going straight for the side wall. 

When he first came to after the collision, he assumed he was still on the freeway.

“I was ready to get up and walk away and I wanted to go out and look at my car,” Zmudka told News 8 as he laughed. “I loved my Jeep and I could tell it wasn’t quite right.”

Practically every inch surrounding the driver’s seat was smashed in around him. 

Dave Zmudka’s car after it went flying off US-131 at the Fulton Street bridge in Grand Rapids. (File)

Amazingly, Zmudka walked away with only bumps and bruises. 

He and Golden both noted his car must have hit the plowed snow piled up along the side of the highway at the perfect angle, creating was what effectively a launch ramp.

News 8 asked the Kent County Road Commission about that hazard.

“It’s the first one that went over this year. There have been some that got stuck on the walls, but not gone over,” Kent County Road Commission Deputy Managing Director of Operations Jerry Byrne explained. “Unfortunately, it happens more than what we’d like.”

He said once crews are able to clear main highways, roads and side streets, their efforts usually circle back to areas where there’s buildup on the shoulders against barriers.

“They try to sheer that roundedness off that snowbank, if you will, so you have a vertical, you have a straight edge so that somebody can’t mount it with their car,” Byrne said.

Snow piled vertically against a highway barrier so it can’t act like a ramp. (February 2021)

Another incredible aspect to the crash is where Zmudka’s Jeep landed: a sidewalk that can be busy with Grand Valley State University students walking to and from the downtown Pew Campus. That morning, it wasn’t.

Zmudka also didn’t hit any other cars on US-131 before diving off the side. 

“The word luck just seems almost frivolous, you know?” Zmudka said. “I decided it was nothing less than the hand of God that was involved here; absolutely nothing less.”

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