Recently injured jumper at James Bridge is a reminder of devastating 2010 incident

This photo of former Gainesville resident Vernon White was taken in Texas in the 1990s – several years before he jumped headfirst from a pier platform at James Bridge near Dawt, breaking his neck, crushing several vertebrae and leaving him a paraplegic.

Now confined to a wheelchair and living near Kansas City with long-time companion Lisa Symington Conklin, White cannot walk and has only limited movement in his arms.

White broke his neck when he jumped headfirst from a platform supporting the middle pier of the old James Bridge, shown in this 2016 photo. The bridge was destroyed in the 2017 floods, and teh area below the new bridge that replaced it is no longer used as an access on the North Fork of the White River.

Last month’s report of a woman who reportedly broke her ankle and leg after jumping feet-first from the James Bridge into the North Fork of the White River northeast of Dawt reminded some area residents of a similar incident nine years ago that left an Ozark County man paralyzed.

Vernon White, a 1983 graduate of Gainesville High School, had just turned 45 three days before July 31, 2010, the day his life changed forever. White’s long-time companion, 1982 GHS grad Lisa Symington Conklin, said during that time of their lives she and White loved floating the river in tubes with friends, usually putting it at Patrick Bridge on H Highway and floating to the James Bridge, which for many years was an unofficial take-out spot on PP Highway. “It was an every-Saturday thing for us in the summer,” she said. 

But Conklin wasn’t with White that day. “He was with a bunch of other friends, and I had stayed home,” she said. 

White and his friends apparently floated the river to James Bridge, where they had left vehicles, but no one seems to remember exactly what happened after they arrived there. 

“I know alcohol was involved,” Conklin said. “He says he doesn’t remember anything except jumping off the platform that supported the bridge’s middle pier – I think he jumped head-first – and then he remembers waking up with his face in the water and he couldn’t move.”

Conklin said, from what she had pieced together, the incident happened sometime between 5 and 7 p.m. “A couple found him floating face-down in the water and did CPR until the ambulance could get there,” she said. “Then they flew him to Mercy Hospital in Springfield.” 

Meanwhile, Conklin was back home, waiting – and worrying. “I had supper fixed and waiting for him to come home,” she said.

Curiously, none of the people who’d floated with White remembered seeing him at James Bridge. “His friend who’d been with him didn’t know where he was. When they left James Bridge they didn’t see him. Even our son, who’s 31 now, was with him, and he doesn’t remember seeing his dad at the bridge,” Conklin said.

Apparently, each of the people he’d floated with thought he was riding home with one of the other friends in the party or had gotten home on his own. 

“Like I said, I’m sure alcohol involved,” Conklin said. 

Finally, about 11 p.m., a friend called Conklin and “said they thought they had heard his name on the scanner about being life-flighted,” she said. “But no one came by, no one from the sheriff’s office called or anything – and they knew us because we grew up there.”

The friend drove her to the Springfield hospital early the next morning. “That’s when I found out he was a quadriplegic and would never walk again,” she said. “He done a number on himself. Broke his neck and crushed the C2 down to the C6 vertebrae. He has limited movement in his arms. He can get them up to his neck but not back down. He has a wrist brace that will hold a spoon and fork. He can feed himself, and he can hold a coffee cup with his thumb. Everything else, I do for him.”

White can also use a computer and is active on Facebook, connecting with several Ozark County friends 

Before the accident, he had worked for Heritage Flooring on J Highway south of Hardenville. And before that, “for 15 years, we traveled, and he was an ironworker building Wal-mart distribution centers,” Conklin said, adding that they’ve been together 30 years.

In addition to their son who was on the river with his dad that day, they have a daughter who’s married and has two daughters. When their grandchildren arrived, they moved from Gainesville to Grain Valley, a Kansas City suburb, to be with them. “Up here, we get to be with our granddaughters daily. We all like that,” she said.

Ozark County Times

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