Three members of a Canadian family are in a mode of gratitude after surviving a nerve-racking experience Tuesday evening along Interstate 81 north of Tamaqua.
"I was terrified," said a relieved Rita Donahoe on Wednesday, one day after avoiding catastrophe when her vehicle malfunctioned at a construction zone during a time of heavy tractor-trailer traffic.
It all took place during what was supposed to be an enjoyable family excursion.
Donahoe left her home in Prince Edward Island two days earlier and was driving south with her sister Rosanne and their mother Felicia, who will turn 90 in December. The Donahoe family was on their way to Daytona Beach to join up with another sibling for spring vacation, their ritual for the past 29 years.
"We're supposed to meet my brother from Calgary," said Donahoe.
Suddenly, while cruising along in the middle of traffic, Donahoe's 2010 Jeep Cherokee began shuddering and vibrating severely. She sensed a loss of control and steering.
"The whole thing was shaking. It was shaking crazy," Donahoe said, adding that there was no place to pull off. Surrounded by trucks and traffic, she had no choice but to keep driving even though the car felt as though the tires were about to break away.
With steady hands, she managed to avoid collisions and to keep the car from veering. At that point, Donahoe noticed a sign that read: 'Delano Exit - 1 mile.'
Somehow, she was able to control the disabled vehicle until she reached the exit, then managed to safely remove the car from traffic lanes and bring it to a stop.
There, atop a mountain 1,500 miles from home, the three women sat stunned.
"I felt helpless. We didn't know where we were. I called the CAA," she said, referring to the Canadian Automobile Association. Shortly later, a crew from Hope's Collision and Towing, Tamaqua, arrived with a tow truck and separate hospitality vehicle.
Mechanics crawled beneath the Jeep and determined that the issue was serious. There could've been dire consequences, they said.
"The locking nut came off the right side outer tie rod shaft," said Matt Hope. A connecting pin also was missing. "It could've been a horrible tragedy."
"The car should've tipped," admitted Felicia Donahoe, recalling the erratic ride.
The car trouble surprised Rita Donahoe because she made sure a safety inspection was performed on the vehicle while still in Canada, prior to the trip. She wanted to be sure the Jeep was ready for the long drive, and so she took the vehicle to the garage. There is some question as to whether a component wasn't tightened properly during that maintenance service.
The women were shaken from the experience but overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern from local residents.
Matt Hope welcomed the trio to stay overnight in a modern studio apartment above the garage office. Hope routinely offers the lodging to those displaced during such emergencies. Hope then oversaw emergency repairs to the Jeep. The women were impressed by Hope and his family and staff, and by warm, coal region friendliness and hospitality.
"We were taken in like family. Everyone treated us like family," said Donahoe. "They even gave us birthday cake."
She said the family especially appreciated the accommodations.
"I was able to watch 'NCIS,' my favorite television show."
The women ordered pizza delivery and spent the rest of the night unwinding from the harrowing experience.
Donahoe spent her career in the banking and mortgage industry. But her parents' livelihood, she said, was rooted in wheat farming. As a result, the family shares a sense of small-town values and kindness, similar to that found among residents of rural Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
Donahoe said she is grateful that the misfortune took place near Tamaqua, a location where people are extra helpful and friendly.
"We are just so thankful," she said. "Somebody's got our back. We've got angels."
After making phone calls to loved ones, the women returned to the highway mid-afternoon Wednesday for the second half of a trip that already is special in ways they'll never forget.