Experience: I was driving across a bridge when it collapsed

Experience: I was driving across a bridge when it collapsed

The car nosedived 45 metres. It was four hours before firefighters found us

Nataliya Yelina

In summer 2018, life was so good. My fiance, Eugeniu, and I had bought a house near Naples. We decided to go on holiday to Provence, where he had proposed six years earlier, and try for a baby.

We had planned to go by plane, but we changed our minds and took the car. My teenage son from a previous marriage was supposed to come, but he ended up staying at home to study.

About 700km into the journey we came through Genoa. The weather was beautiful – then it suddenly switched. I’d never seen the sky go so dark; the rain was torrential. We went through a tunnel and came out on to the Morandi bridge. I had never been on it before, but I now know the motorway bridge opened in 1967 and was more than 1,000 metres long. The visibility was bad and we could hardly see a metre in front of us.

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

Out of nowhere, we felt the odd sensation that the car was lifting at the front. The next second, we were falling into nothing. We nosedived 45 metres in our tin box of a car. On the way down, we were battered by rubble and I felt my heart jump up into my throat. After that, there was total silence.

Our car ended up landing on a road below the bridge; we were crushed inside the wreckage under colossal slabs of concrete. We never lost consciousness, but I was in shock. I hadn’t processed what was happening and was still thinking about my holiday. I had no idea the bridge had collapsed – I thought it might have been an earthquake.

We beeped the horn in the hope someone would hear us. At first we shouted, but then stopped because we didn’t want to lose strength and pass out. We tried calling an ambulance, but there was no signal under the rubble.

I knew I was hurt – my leg was bleeding and I couldn’t move it – but because of the adrenaline I didn’t feel pain. I later found out a disc in my spine had exploded and my leg was broken. Eugeniu had broken his neck.

Rescue workers eventually found us while saving a man whose van was dangling from another section of the bridge above us. We’d been under the rubble for four hours by the time we were pulled out, and the firefighter covered my face with his jacket so I couldn’t see the devastation. It was only afterwards, when I saw it on television, that I realised the scale of the tragedy – 43 people had died. The back of our car was squashed by falling concrete. If my son had been with us he would not have survived.

In the hospital, we decided to get married as soon as possible – the tragedy made us realise we never wanted to be without each other. The doctors were worried I wouldn’t walk again but I can, just not so well. I was a beautician and Eugeniu was a hairdresser – we still have our salon, but because of our injuries I can’t work there any more.

I’ve had to accept that I’m not the same as before. As we fell, the sound around us was terrible. Now, I can’t bear sudden noises. I dream of things falling. I’ve seen a psychologist, but there’s nothing to find out; we know what happened and where this trauma comes from. I just hope that with time my mind will put it aside.

It was a painful decision, but we didn’t try for a baby after the tragedy. I wouldn’t be able to pick them up and give them a cuddle. I gave Eugeniu the option to leave, I said, “You’re a young, good-looking man, you don’t want a disabled, older wife. You can find someone else.” He said, “Well, in that case, you haven’t understood anything about what I feel for you.”

The best thing to have come out of the tragedy is that I appreciate life much more. Before, we had focused on earning money. When we went on this holiday, I had lovely clothes and shoes in my suitcase, and they were all buried under the rubble. Maybe that was a sign that these things don’t really matter. What matters is family.

The trial to find out who was responsible will continue in September. I will be there to talk about my experience and get justice for the families of the victims, whom we now know quite well. Even if it won’t bring back their son or daughter, it might give them the satisfaction that some justice has been done. We don’t want this tragedy to be forgotten.

As told to Ellie Purcell

Do you have an experience to share? Email experience@theguardian.com