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Ex-officer in boat crash: 'I see a stranger's face'

James Brunet was in JSO boat crash during Super Bowl 10 years ago

James Brunet suffered a broken neck and many other injuries in a JSO boat crash 10 years ago during the Super Bowl.
James Brunet suffered a broken neck and many other injuries in a JSO boat crash 10 years ago during the Super Bowl.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sunday will be one of the biggest televised events of the year -- the Super Bowl.

Ten years ago, the NFL's biggest stage came to the River City. But one Jacksonville Sheriff's Officer doesn't remember the big day because he spent it in a coma.

Officer James Brunet was a passenger in a JSO marine boat helping patrol the busy waters of the St. Johns River. The JSO boat was meeting with a fireworks barge on the other side of the Fuller Warren Bridge but boat traffic had the main channel blocked, so it went through a smaller channel.

The boat hit a narrow, concrete piling that was part of the old Fuller Warren Bridge, which was under construction at the time. Brunet said the piling had no lights or markings on it and with the weather and lighting conditions, the driver of the boat didn't see it until the last minute. But it was too late.

Brunet broke his neck in the crash and doctors had to reconstruct parts of his face.

It's been a difficult decade for Brunet, who's now an attorney, and he wanted to share his story and message with others.

"It was pretty scary," Brunet said of the crash. "I still get choked up thinking about it. You would think after 10 years you would learn to deal with it, but you don't."

It was a dark and drizzly night on the St. Johns River when the boat, traveling about 30 miles per hour, hit the concrete piling head on. The impact smashed Brunet's face, breaking his neck, nose, teeth and the orbits of his eyes.

"I still look in the mirror, and I see a stranger's face," Brunet said. "Everyone has grown accustomed to it. They know me as me. It still looks odd to me, and it probably always will. But you know the human spirit is resilient. You take a deep breath, put on your big-boy pants, suck it up and go."

Brunet had close to 40 surgeries but said it's a miracle he even survived and didn't suffer a traumatic brain injury.

"Going through something like this really clarifies for you what's important," he said. "And what I found to be most important are the family and friends who really care about you."

He said the people in the police department helped him pull through,

"That profession is one that we go into knowing the sacrifices, knowing the commitment that's involved, but knowing also that you're a part of something bigger than yourself," Brunet said. "And the support that I got from the agency and the people in it really is probably what helped me get through the roughest times.

"I can't explain to you the level of support I've gotten from people I barely know."

Brunet said he still has dark days and suffers long-term effects, like loss of memory and smell and a lack of feeling in his upper lip. But he advises others suffering similar adversity to stand tall and know they have the strength to overcome it.
 
Brunet said he's just thankful to still be walking the planet and in as good condition as he is. He said he spends his free time helping others overcome similar obstacles.