it's all about me; living on life; burnstown

High-jumping daredevil

I walked out on the platform. Dropped a rock. Swung my legs over the edge and jumped.

Wait, what? Dropped a rock you ask? Yes. That’s right. Dropped a rock.

You see the platform I was jumping off wasn’t a diving board. I needed to drop the rock to break the water. The edge my legs swung over was actually the guard rail of the 96′ high bridge in Burnstown.

it's all about me; burnstown bridge

Burnstown Bridge | Photo credit: tyleRJames1 on Flickr

Tuesday, August 15, 1996. I was invincible. Or so my young, immature pea-brain told me. A group of my high school friends decided to hit a local beach. It was only about a 20 minute drive from home and generally secluded. The perfect hang out for teens.

The evening was beautiful. Warm air that was heavy to breathe. Water so calm your reflection stared back at you. It wasn’t long before a buddy asked if anyone wanted to jump. It took about 1.683 seconds before an enthusiastic “suuuuuuure” was out of my mouth. My therapist has told me I’m a bit of a wildflower. I’m starting to understand what she means. Three of us headed for the bridge while the other two stayed at the beach.

To get to the top you have to walk up a hill. The whole way up all I could think was “what the hell are you doing?” But being the too cool teenager who had boys to impress and prove it was all about her, there was no way I was turning back.

Just before we hit the side of the road our friend Cory instructed us to find a rock. That’s when I knew I was in deep. “The water will be like hitting cement if you don’t break it first.” While f-bombs were going off in my head at this point the daredevil in me wanted the thrill. I had always dreamt about freefalling and wanted to feel it for real. Because clearly the Drop Zone at Wonderland wasn’t good enough.

Cory went first and showed us how it was done. He screamed with excitement on the way down. I don’t remember what the sound was when he hit the water. I was too focused holding my pee in as I looked over the edge. I do remember him reappearing and waving for the next person to go. That happened to be me.

I’m not sure my heart has ever raced as hard as it did in the seconds that followed. But I was doing it. I was conquering the Burnstown Bridge.

It’s amazing the details you remember 19 years later. I know I checked to see if there were any cars coming. Nope. I remember where I stood on the bridge. I remember the black bikini I wore. Not exactly 10 story high bridge jumping attire but I was 18 and I had boobs that sat where they were supposed to, unlike today. After I dropped my rock I remember counting to 4 and pushing myself off the ledge.

Help on the way

The way down? A blur. I have no idea if it was everything I wanted it to be or not. The second I smashed the water I knew it was bad. At first I thought I was dead. It.Was.Black. I remember the sound. It was the same hum you get when you cover your ears. As I rose to the surface I didn’t know if the circle of light that was getting bigger and brighter was the entrance to the Pearly Gates or the end of day light cast over the water.

I bobbed. I was alive. But I couldn’t breathe. Twenty feet or so before I hit the water there was a gust of wind that tossed me back. My legs went in on an angle before my back slapped against it. The impact blew the running shoes I was wearing off my feet.

My friends on shore knew it was bad before I did. They were already in the water on their way to help before I reappeared. Somehow I was able to crawl up on a pier. I still couldn’t breathe. I knew I had to get to shore. Clearly not thinking I dove off the pier into the water. I have no idea how long it took but with friends at my side I managed my way to shore.

I could breathe again but it was laboured. I couldn’t take in a full breath. The pain was so intense everywhere I couldn’t pinpoint where it hurt most.

Again, being the cool girl – cause you can’t lose that status even in a life or death situation when you’re 18 – I pushed my friends away and tried to walk. I only made it so far before their arms were around me. I insisted on walking which became more like limp feet dragging behind me.

As we were in the middle of two small towns, we decided it would be faster to drive to a hospital than wait on an ambulance. I started by sitting up in the truck but it wasn’t long before I kicked my girlfriend to the floor so I could lie down.

By the time we arrived at the hospital 20 minutes later I was seized. The orderlies put a board between my back and the seat and when they flipped me over, the fetal position I had been lying in did not change. My arms were against my chest with my knees just about as close.

It was only a few minutes before my clothes were cut off and I was in x-ray. Subconsciously there must have been something about being in safety because my body started to relax. And that’s when I realized how excruciating the pain was.

When you’re from a small town and end up in the small town hospital you’re bound to know someone. The emergency room nurse that night was a friend of the family. Olga helped calm me and doped me up good. Medically speaking of course.

The other thing about small town hospitals is that emergency room doctors are on call after 9:00 pm or so. Or at least they used to be. While I had x-rays done, we had to wait before anything could really happen.

At this point I figured someone should probably call my parents. I know Melissa told them “not to worry” but they insisted on coming down. In hindsight it was a good idea.

When Dr. Rivington arrived, who just so happens to be another friend of the family, things moved quickly. It was a blur. Remember, drugged at this point. I know there was lots of scurrying and shuffling and murmuring on the phone. That’s when we were told I was being rushed to the Civic Hospital in Ottawa.


In medical speak I had shattered and compressed L1. Nine out of ten people do not walk again with this type of break. The shards of bone generally make their way into the spinal column causing partial to full paralysis.

I was 18. I was by myself lying in the back of a cold ambulance stoned on Demorel with Chinese-water torcher going on. My brain was empty and I couldn’t speak.

I was wheeled into a curtained area. I could hear my mom but couldn’t see her. A man with a blood stained bandage over his shoulder walked by. I vividly remember the feeling of terror and trembling with fear.

Finally my mom was brought to me. The pain was again unbearable. She left to get help. I have no idea what happened after this.

My next memory is 2 days later on the Thursday. While I was beyond drugged on morphine and Demorel to manage the agony, I remember my mom leaving my side for the first time since arriving at the hospital to go get a tea. It was in those moments that an orderly came to get me for surgery. If there was ever a time of feeling alone, this was it. It brings me to tears just thinking about it.

Bionic woman

Dr. Garth Johnson performed a 5 hour surgery to repair my back. Somehow the shattered disk remained in place and no shard fragments entered my spinal column. The team at the Civic rebuilt the disk by doing a bone graft from my hip. After it was reconstructed 3 disks (T12, L1 & L2) were fused together. A bunch of titanium was secured like Jenga blocks around my spine and I was fit for an ever so stylish custom brace.

The morning after surgery I was back at the Pearly Gates. Or at least led to believe I was headed there. A priest stood at the end of the bed reading me my last rights. A lot had happened but back to dying? Turns out he had the right bed, wrong room.

My recovery was fast. That same day I was being relieved of my sins nurses had me sitting. I was so sedated that I was sick from the head rush. And while I cursed them in that moment for making me do it, the push from the nurses to get moving allowed me to walk out of the hospital a week and a day after being rolled in. I wasn’t shaking it like a polaroid picture or anything but I was walking and that’s all that mattered.

Blessings counted

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my accident. While it was a sheer act of stupidity, it has made me stronger as a person. I have learned that life is precious and to enjoy all moments, big and small. That sometimes I need to suck it up and listen to others as they know what’s best. When faced with adversary I can manage through.

While I normally go to the bridge every year on the anniversary of my accident to reflect, it was cold and rainy this year. I asked my friend Michelle from Living on Life who lives in the area to send me a picture so I could still carry that tradition in some way.

it's all about me; living on life; burnstown

Michelle paddling under the Burnstown Bridge

Moral of the story? Don’t give your parents a nervous breakdown; stick to the Drop Zone.


3 Responses

  1. Incredible! I was Googling images of Burnstown (childhood home) and a link led me to this story. I used to love swimming at the bridge/peers/’Old Beach’ etc.

    I never did jump off the bridge, even when I was making all kinds of incredibly stupid mistakes as a teenage boy/young man – but after reading this article, I believe that I can ultimately credit that fortuitous omission from my laundry list of bad decisions to you, and my witness of your experience…

    I grew up just outside of Burnstown, and throughout the 80’s/much of the 90’s witnessed ‘cool’, or at least ‘fearless’ kids jumping off the bridge. I suppose that I was inarguably the most fearless (now I might use the word reckless) of my friends, and in hindsight, felt that I was both invincible, and had nothing to lose. My friends’ counsel, and reticence to engage in risky behaviour was rarely sufficient to assuage my most daring and often destructive of personal ambitions, and though their particular combination of level-headedness and sensibility had been successful in staying my engagement in my own ‘Bridge Jump’ up to the age of 14 (assuming it is your experience that I witnessed – given the date you’ve outlined above as the day it occurred), I sincerely believe that I would have eventually jumped had I not witnessed a horrible event that sounds very similar to the one you describe above (I suspect it was your jump).

    Most of the details are very hazy in my mind – as most details in old memories are. The common components fade into the background, and shift, and change as the common thematics blend into a sea of similar memories and experiences. Some of the imagery, however, the most aberrant details, remain fresh and crisp for as long as they remain unique – in this case I hope that the uniqueness will remain eternal for me.

    The vague bits: Possibly I remember a group of people climbing the hill to the bridge, and walking out. Possibly I recall a guy jumping first (I do seem to strongly recall that there was someone in the water under the bridge already by the time the girl jumped, and I do feel like he had jumped first, but I do not recall his jump – merely that he was already in the water). It’s possible that she was wearing a black bikini. I remember her resurfacing, to my relief. I recall her struggle to walk afterward, with her friends carrying her away.

    The clear bits: Her name was ‘Sarah’ (or at least phonetically was: S EH r uh). I remember asking about her, and asking what we could do, would she be ok, etc, etc, etc… Panic.

    The crystal clear bits: I remember her pushing off the bridge, and being completely stiff, almost as if through some fated form of alchemy, her flesh and sinew had lost all of it’s elasticity, and become some metal lacking any malleability or ductility the second she had lost contact with solid ‘ground’. I remember watching her fall, as though it lasted eons. I remember that almost immediately after she pushed herself off the bridge, that she started to tilt so that her back gradually became more parallel to the water than her feet were perpendicular to it. I remember wondering why she did not struggle to right herself. I remember that I was terrified that she wasn’t flailing and waving her arms and legs frantically to bring her feet back under her. I remember the certainty that when she hit the water fully on her back that she would never walk again, if her friends managed to pull her out of the water before she drowned, and wondering if I could make it to her from my place upon the pier before her breath ran out.

    Now, I suspect, I will always remember the date August 15, and that I too, will reflect on some of the more unique paths and experiences I have shared in my life.

    Thank you very much for sharing this memory. I take away a sense of closure that the ‘Sarah’ I saw ‘break her back’ on Burnstown bridge has recovered, and that she too shares deep reflection upon life which is centred around a memory we share from very different vantage points.

Leave your babble below