August 15, 2014 at 8:43 pm

'I'm alive': Sterling Heights woman, 30, rushes to correct reports she died in flooding

Jena David of Sterling Heights says she's grateful to the people at Buddy's Pizza for helping her. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Sterling Heights— Jena David, still reeling the day after Monday’s catastrophic flood, saw a news report about a 30-year-old woman who had died after being carried into a restaurant by an unknown man.

Then, it dawned on her: “They’re talking about me. Everyone thinks I’m dead.”

Now she wants the world to know there’s one less victim among the tens of thousands who lost property and even their lives in this week’s flooding. Officials initially reported the Wayne State psychology student — whom a Good Samaritan carried into the Buddy’s Pizza on Van Dyke as diners scrambled onto tables to avoid rising water — had died. But she’s just fine.

“I’m alive,” she said Friday. “It was strange seeing the media reporting that I was dead. Now, my friends don’t believe me when I tell them I’m the girl who supposedly died at the Buddy’s Pizza.”

In the confusion following the watery onslaught Monday, officials mistakenly reported the death, Warren Deputy Police Commissioner Louis Galasso said.

“I got the information from the fire department that the woman had died, and then I relayed it to the media,” Galasso said. “It wasn’t our case, but that’s what we were told.

“Then (on Thursday), I got a call from our fire commissioner, who tells me: ‘You know that lady who died at Buddy’s? Well, she just walked into Buddy’s looking for her property. She’s not dead. She wanted to know if anyone had her purse.’ ”

'We never got that body'

In addition to David, two others were reported to have died in the flood: 100-year-old Julia Sarno, who drowned in the water-filled basement of her Warren home, and a 68-year-old Warren man, whose name has not yet been made public, who apparently died while pushing his car on a flooded Oak Park street, according to the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The other two deaths have been confirmed by coroners, but employees at the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office were flummoxed when the media kept calling about a 30-year-old female cadaver that never arrived.

“We never got that body,” said Denise Calhoun, an employee at the Macomb Medical Examiner’s Office. “We’ve been getting calls all week from the media, but she never came here. We decided to check into it ourselves because we’ve been getting so many calls. We called all the hospitals, but we found nothing.”

Galasso said it’s not uncommon during chaotic situations for mistakes to be made in initial reports. “It happens sometimes,” he said. “It was a crazy night.”

For David, the chaos started Monday evening on her way home from Wayne State, where she had worked on her master’s thesis on educational psychology.

“All of a sudden, this water started rising, rising, and I couldn’t get out of the car,” she said. “So I’m freaking out.”

The next several hours are a blur, she said.

“I thought I was going to die when that water started rising, because I can’t swim,” she said. “I vaguely remember a man pulling me out of the car, putting me on his shoulders and carrying me into the Buddy’s.”

Kind strangers

Inside the restaurant, 76-year-old Judy Szczesny stood on the patio with her family and about 125 others, watching the waters rise, when a man appeared through the haze carrying a woman. “He was struggling through chest-deep water,” she said. “He brought her inside, and put a tablecloth over her to keep her warm. I had a sweatshirt, and put that over her.”

When Szczesny first contacted The News Friday morning, she said she wanted to tell the story of the unknown man, whom she called “an unsung hero.” She said she also hoped she could provide a measure of comfort to the victim’s grieving relatives.

“I just want the family of that poor woman to know that she was surrounded by kind people who cared for her before she died, and tried everything they could to save her,” Szczesny said. “Especially that young man. He stayed with her, and held her hand, and tried to comfort her. He was just fantastic.”

Someone at the pizzeria dialed 911, and a crew from the Warren Fire Department arrived within minutes. The first responders transported David to St. John Macomb Hospital, then returned to the restaurant to rescue the others, using a boat to get the patrons out a few at a time.

Szczesny was overcome with joy when she was told later Friday that David was alive.

“That is wonderful, wonderful news,” she said. “That just makes my day.”

David’s mother, Layla David, said the hours of not knowing whether her daughter was dead or alive took a toll.

“I felt like I was having a heart attack,” she said in Assyrian, as interpreted by her daughter. “Everything was going through my mind. I was very scared.”

'God bless you'

David believes she was overcome by the situation.

“It was all stress-related,” she said. “I was cold and shivering ... I just blacked out.”

She later came to in a hospital bed. “That’s when I found out how worried my family was. After I called my dad and my fiance, they must have called my phone 50 times, but I didn’t answer.”

Doctors discharged her from the hospital, and her father drove her home. The next day, she learned about the reports of her “death.”

“At first, my twin brother told me he saw something about me on the Weather Channel,” said David, who works as a receptionist at a beauty salon. “Then I saw something on Channel 7 about a woman who died after being taken from the Buddy’s in Warren, and my heart dropped. It was a strange kind of feeling.”

Like thousands of other Metro Detroiters, David is now sifting through the flood’s fallout. “My car is totaled,” she said. “I put the claim in with my insurance company, but I don’t know if they’re going to pay it. I’m hoping they do.”

Most of all, though, she said she would like to meet the man who possibly saved her life by pulling her out of her car, and the others who aided her in the restaurant.

“God bless you,” she said to the stranger. “I’m very grateful that you were there. I want to say thanks to that guy, and all the rest of the people that cared to help. I’m very blessed to know there are good people out there.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com
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