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‘The only three things that saved us were God, seat belts and owning a Buick’

Bellingham Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula.
Bellingham Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

After a Thanksgiving weekend they’ll never forget, Joseph and Deborah Bernard returned home and immediately had a batch of Christmas cards printed that are sure to turn some heads this holiday season.

The photo shows the couple standing next to their Buick Lucerne. OK, maybe including the car is a little different, but other than that it sounds fairly normal, right?

At least until you notice the 100-foot evergreen lying across their hood and windshield, splintered in half.

“It says, ‘Maybe we’ll go for a smaller Christmas tree next year,’” Joseph Bernard proudly joked Friday during an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Yeah, a bit smaller might be a good idea. Only it won’t make for quite as good a story — and what a story they have to tell this year.

How could the couple possibly beat walking away from having a full-size tree fall on their car as they’re traveling at highway speed? And the only thing tall in this tale was the tree.

The Bernards were returning to Bellingham Monday from a holiday weekend visit with Deborah’s sister and brother-in-law in Hoodsport, heading north up the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101. They were about 10 miles south of Quilcene when the unthinkable happened.

“We were probably going about 45 mph, and it was raining and there was probably a 30- to 35-mph wind,” Joseph Bernard said. “We’re just driving and having a good time.

“Then all of a sudden, Debbie yelled, ‘Watch out!’ I turned right and saw this huge tree coming down. I stomped on the brake as hard as I could. Debbie put her hand was on my leg, and I kind of knew this was it. I didn’t even cover my face.”

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Bellingham’s Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula. Deborah Bernard Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Deborah said the couple have been traveling together for 40 years and have piled up nearly “a million” miles with Alaska Airlines.

“We’ve always said if something were to happen, we wanted it to happen to both of us,” she told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Friday. “We wanted to go together. There wasn’t time for fright — we both just watched it come down.”

Joseph Bernard described the tree landing on the car “like a bomb” with such force that it pushed the car’s engine up through the hood, popped the windshield out and shattered it into a million little pieces.

But the tree stopped just inches from their faces.

“As soon as it was settled down, it seemed like we were out of it for like a second, and then we looked at each other and started screaming, ‘We’re alive! We’re alive,” Joseph Bernard said.

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Bellingham’s Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula. Deborah Bernard Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

People in a car following behind weren’t quite so sure the Bernards had actually survived, though, as a woman in her 20s jumped out of the car, stood far enough back not to see any bodies and yelled “Are you alive? Are you OK?” Joseph Bernard said he jumped out of the car and shouted again, “We’re alive!”

In fact, the only injuries they suffered were some residual soreness from the force of their bodies straining against the seat belts.

“The only three things that saved us were God, seat belts and owning a Buick,” Joseph Bernard said. “There is no earthly way we should have walked away.”

And the Bernards were happy to celebrate their amazing good fortune.

They estimated the highway was closed for more than an hour while the Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Troopers worked to remove the tree from their car.

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Bellingham’s Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula. Deborah Bernard Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“People were so supportive,” Deborah Bernard said. “It was like a party in the road. I was dancing in the road with this girl — ‘We’re alive!’ The trooper had to come up and ask us to move off to the side so the road crews could get through to try to open the highway. It was raining, but we were having the most wonderful experience.”

And of course they took pictures — how else are you going to make a Christmas card out of it?

Once the road was opened, the state trooper gave the Bernards a ride back to Hoodsport, while their car, which they said will likely be totaled, was towed to Port Townsend.

Since Monday’s miraculous events, the Bernards said they have heard from dozens of family members and friends who were overjoyed to hear their voices and listen to them describe what happened.

“It’s like we got to go to our own memorial service,” Deborah Bernard said. “But it’s a whole lot better when you’re still alive and get to share those memories with the people you love.”

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Bellingham Deborah and Joseph Bernard miraculously walked away unhurt from a wind-blown 100-foot tree hitting their Buick near Quilcene while they were returning home from Thanksgiving weekend on the Olympic Peninsula. Deborah Bernard Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

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