Stranded in a disabled Chevy Trailblazer near the US-56/77/K-150 roundabout, more than 700 miles from home, in the darkest hours before dawn on a chilly, snowy February Sunday morning, Lushani Seneviratne’s composure was not the measure of her resume.
The accomplished 31-year-old native of Sri Lanka, a small island country southeast of India, came to the United States in 2006. She earned a general studies degree at the University of Oklahoma, a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of North Dakota, and after a stint with a start-up oil company, was back at UND working on a postgraduate degree, also in petroleum engineering.
None of that mattered as she sat there in her SUV in the dark. Composure gone, fearing the worst, she cried.
“I was alone, I didn’t know anyone, and I thought I would have to dump my car and take a bus or a flight,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get home. I didn’t know what would happen.”
She called a mechanic she knew in Houston, one who had worked on the Trailblazer after a wreck there last year. She’d just come from there, leaving Friday night after celebrating the most reverent of Hindu festivals, Maha Shiv Ratri, with friends.
“He told me to just give it a rest and restart again, but the car wouldn’t start,” she said. “I thought it was some terrible mechanical failure.”
Little traffic cruises along US-77 at 5:30 a.m., particularly on a Sunday, but a woman passing by stopped, and looked under the hood.
“She thought I was out of oil and she put a quart in; she told me I should call the police, that she had to go to work, and she left,” Seneviratne said.
That didn’t work, but unbeknownst to Seneviratne, help was on the way.
Another passing motorist spied her car and called 911. In turn, the dispatcher called sergeant Mike Ottensmeier, who wasn’t scheduled to start his shift until 6 a.m. He agreed to head out early.
“Nobody ever stops anymore,” Ottensmeier said. “They just drive by and call. I just wish that people would attempt to stop.”
When he stepped up beside the car window, he found a distraught young woman at her wits end. After reassuring her he was there to help, he listened to her problem and had an idea.
“I asked her, ‘When’s the last time you put gas in this thing?’” he said. “She said she only used Shell gas. I don’t know too many Shell stations between here and the Oklahoma border.”
Although the gauge still showed a quarter tank of fuel, the telltale sound of the cranking engine convinced Ottensmeier he was right. He gave Seneviratne his card, told her to call 911 if she needed to while he was gone, and left for home to get a gas can.
“The best moment for me was when he said, ‘I’ll bet my paycheck you’re out of gas,’” she said. “That actually convinced me the car was really out of gas and not a mechanical failure. He said three times, ‘I promise I’ll be back,’ because I was crying and flustered. It meant a lot how he talked to me. He was all about making sure I would be all right.”
Ottensmeier returned about 15 minutes later, poured in the gas, and cranked the engine.
“She smiled from ear to ear when that engine turned over,” he said.
But Ottensmeier wasn’t finished.
“I thought, ‘If I send her north on this highway and one more thing happens to her, she’s going to lose it,” he said. “I told myself I was just going to fill the darned thing up; that way I knew she was going to get to a larger city.”
Ottensmeier had Seneviratne follow him to Casey’s General Store in Marion.
“He pumped $30 worth of gas into my SUV until the tank was full using his own credit card,” Seneviratne said. “Then he led me inside the gas station, bought me my morning coffee, and asked if I need anything for breakfast.”
They continued talking for about 10 minutes, she about Sri Lanka and her studies, he about work and family, “just chit chat about what you and I might talk about on a daily basis,” Ottensmeier said.
And with that, Seneviratne was back on the road, feeling far more than calm.
“It was Sunday morning, it was very sunny, and with all I’d been through, I was extremely happy,” she said. “I felt like God was watching, someone was protecting me, and that I was blessed. I was very happy, like a school girl.”
That was so much the case that later that day, when she spied a playground while driving through a residential area, she stopped and went for a joyous ride on a swing set to celebrate her good fortune.
After getting home and settled back into her routine, Seneviratne reconnected with Ottensmeier through social media. She posted their story and pictures, wanting in particular to share with her Sri Lankan friends.
“You were truly god-sent at the very moment I desperately needed help, and it truly made a positive and lasting impact in my life,” she wrote at one point.
Ottensmeier was appreciative.
“She told me she was going to do something like that,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything special on my part, but it was special to her. In this day and age, any bit of bright light the police can get for doing public service is good.”