‘God gave me a second chance’

Published 9:03 am Monday, January 23, 2017

Vicksburg man recounts being struck by lightning while hunting with a friend

Jonathan Gardner is either one of the luckiest, or one of the unluckiest people, in the world.  

Whichever one it is might depend on a personal view of the world, but there’s no doubt which side of the ledger Gardner thinks he falls on.  

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The 20-year-old Vicksburg resident was struck by lightning while duck hunting on Jan. 2, yet walked away with only “a headache,” the knowledge of how close he came to death, and a new appreciation for life.

“It’s not too many people that can survive it, and if they do they come out with really horrible injuries. I came out of it with just a headache,” Gardner said. “I feel very lucky. I’m really, really lucky. God gave me a second chance.”

The morning of Monday, Jan. 2, began like hundreds of others for Gardner. He and his best friend, Austin Bond, along with another friend Colton Scariano, left the house around 3:30 a.m. and headed to Mahannah Wildlife Management Area in Issaquena County to go duck hunting.

Thunderstorms were in the forecast, but it was nothing the veteran hunters hadn’t seen before. As they headed toward their spot, Gardner said they passed a lot of fellow hunters who were also braving what was at the time just a rainy morning.

“People were calling me an (idiot) for going out there in a storm. Well, every hole we passed was full so there were a lot of other (idiots) out there, too,” Gardner said with a laugh.

When they arrived at their hunting spot they sat on a small dirt mound, just a couple of feet apart, talking and watching an early-morning storm roll across the Delta.

Just after dawn, their fun duck hunting trip turned into a battle for survival.

“About 6:45 we’re looking for the birds to come in. Next thing I know, I see something come down about 20 feet away and hit the water, and everything went white,” Bond said. “It was light like I’ve never seen before, and it was followed by a loud crack. That’s when I knew it was lightning.”

A bolt of lightning had hit the water nearby. Although it wasn’t a direct hit, it was close enough to send a charge through the water and toward three men. Bond and Scariano were stunned, but unhurt. They were wearing insulated waders that protected them.

Gardner was not. His boots and waders were not insulated and he took the brunt of the lightning’s fury.

“Austin said I looked like I had a seizure. Every muscle in my body was just tensed up and locked in place,” Gardner said, slowing his story and becoming emotional about the memory. “All I can explain it as, it was the worst thing I ever felt in my life.”

The jolt had flipped Gardner over on his stomach, while Bond and Scariano instinctively rolled over to protect themselves. Once Bond got his wits about him, more instinct took over.

Bond is a tankerman trainee for Magnolia Marine. As part of his training for working on the river, he’d had some instruction in first aid and CPR. Gardner did not require the latter, but the first aid training helped Bond stay calm as he assessed the situation and figured out the next move.

“We got scared, but if we got riled up it wasn’t going to do any good,” Bond said.

Miraculously, Gardner had survived the lightning strike without any obvious life-threatening injuries. He was not burned and was conscious. He was even able to stand up for a moment as Bond and Scariano carried him to a safer location.

“He stood up and it was like a newborn baby deer, stumbling all over the place,” Bond said.

Gardner remembered the immediate aftermath in flashes.

“I came to and was holding on to my best friend’s leg. My body was shaking real bad and hurting all over. I had a terrible headache in one spot,” he said.

The group reached a levee and started yelling for help. The closest hunters were several hundred yards away and didn’t appear to hear their cries over the rain. Bond started running to his truck nearly a mile away, and as he was coming back another hunter was bringing Gardner to him on a four-wheeler.

They transferred Gardner to the truck and started racing back to the hospital in Vicksburg. After reaching the intersection of Highway 61 and Floweree Road, they flagged down a Warren County Sheriff’s deputy. Gardner was switched over to an ambulance and taken to Merit Health River Region from there.

“I thank God me, Colton and the people in the other field were there to help him,” Bond said. “If we weren’t there it could’ve gone really bad, really fast. I’m glad we were there and knew what to do.”

Gardner felt the same way.

“If it wasn’t for my best friend Austin I probably would’ve drowned,” he said.

One of the most amazing parts of the story wasn’t that Gardner survived, it’s that he did it with barely a scratch. Exhausted and hurting, he slept until late that evening but went duck hunting again the next morning.

“We were grilling that night and cracking jokes,” Bond said. “We nicknamed him ‘Sparky.’”

Although he didn’t have any lasting physical scars, Gardner admits he’s got some psychological ones from the incident. He got choked up while recounting the events of that morning, and says he’s a lot more wary around severe weather now.

“I never checked the weather as much as I do now. When they say it’s a possibility of thunderstorms, I check the Weather Channel like crazy,” Gardner said. “Austin does the same thing. He said after he got back home somebody shot some fireworks and he about jumped off the porch.”

Even though Gardner has been back duck hunting several times since then, he hasn’t been back to Mahannah yet.

“They were like, ‘Let’s go to Mahannah,’ and I said, ‘No. Let’s go somewhere else.’ I wasn’t ready for that yet,” Gardner said. “I went ahead and went (hunting) because I got it from my mom. Don’t let it get me down. Do what you love.”

That’s a lesson everyone who was on that dirt mound that day seems to have taken to heart. It wasn’t lost on the 21-year-old Bond how close he came to suffering a terrible fate at a young age.

“Without a doubt it changed all our perspectives on life,” Bond said. “You don’t get tomorrow. You don’t realize how true that is until you’re staring it in the face. It’s definitely brought us closer and made us realize you only get one shot at this. Always tell your friends and family you love them. You only get one shot.”

Gardner, likewise, is still coming to terms with his near-death experience. His answer is to just keep moving forward.

“It’s hard. I really can’t explain it too well. It sucks that this happened, but I have to keep living and keep going. I’m lucky. Not too many people survive something like that,” he said. “It hits me hard because I could’ve died out there. Sometimes I wake up and start crying. I keep my head up high and keep going.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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