Flipped: The Story of Emerson Barnett

The Calm Before the Storm
James Emerson Barnett was bundled in three layers of winter gear. The deep hum of his 1986 Toyota PreRunner permeated the confines of his warm home. He grabbed a blueberry bagel and Lipton Diet Mixed Berry Green Tea and stuffed them into his pocket.

“Kimbo, you almost ready?” he shouted to his roommate.

“Almost!” she shouted back.

After a few moments of waiting, Barnett’s roommate, Kimberly Perez, emerged from her room clinging a polka dot duffel bag and a boarding pass. Her face gleamed with delight-she was going home.

It was a brisk December morning in Fort Collins, Colorado. Temperatures hovered in the mid-teens and the early morning air stung the faces of the unlucky victims who dared to venture out so early. It was 3:30 a.m. and, unfortunately, Perez and Barnett were two of the victims.

The vivacious duo piled into the cluttered PreRunner. Empty Lipton bottles and lecture notes peppered the truck’s floor. Despite the messy appearance, this truck was Barnett’s baby. He doted on how well it handled in the snow and how fun it was to drive. He cherished his new two thousand dollar investment.

The truck’s heat was broken and the only thing providing any relief to the cold was the winter gear and hand warmers both donned. The spirits of both Perez and Barnett were high though; Perez was about to catch a flight back home to Miami for the holiday’s while Barnett was eager to tinker on his new truck over break.

The ride down to Denver International Airport (DIA) breezed by and before the two knew it; they were passing the blue bronco statue welcoming visitors to DIA.

“Thanks Emerson Joon, drive safe!” Perez yelled to Barnett as she scurried through the sliding doors of DIA.

“Anytime Kimbo!” Barnett exclaimed back.


The Storm
And with that, Barnett was headed back to Fort Collins. Barnett didn’t mind short trips, driving was driving and driving was something he loved doing, no matter the time or distance. He coasted along E-470 at a smooth 75 MPH. He downshifted to 70 MPH as he was exiting E-470 to merge onto I-25 north. Barnett knew his truck lacked the power to properly enter a highway so he accounted for this by keeping his trucks speed above 70 MPH.

He entered the I-25 on-ramp. As soon as Barnett approached his blind point, he noticed a Ford truck hauling two ATVs on a flatbed keeping the same pace as him. Barnett knew he would have to speed up or wait for the truck to pass before merging into traffic. With the power of his truck being less than ideal, he knew riding it out and letting the truck pass before making his move was his best bet.

Barnett is a strategic driver. His many years of AutoCross racing helps him visualize scenarios before they occur.

The Ford truck started to cut into the entrance lane where Barnett was still waiting to merge. Barnett knew what the truck was doing, the driver was using the entrance as a pick to prevent people from cutting around him. With a blink of an eye, the Ford came over and, unfortunately, Barnett was there.

If there was anytime to utilize his advanced driving techniques, it was now. The PreRunner’s tires were exposed. The initial point of impact would have been Barnett’s left front tire. He had to think fast. If he didn’t devise a plan, the impact from his left front tire and the Ford’s flatbed would have inevitably picked up Barnett’s truck and turned him into rush hour traffic.

This was the scenario Barnett wanted to avoid at all costs. He knew if he made any contact with the Ford, his life, as well as many others, would be in jeopardy. The next move he made inevitably saved his life and the lives of others.


The Flip

Emerson Barnett’s detailed account of the flip…


The Aftermath
Barnett and his truck were 30 to 40 feet parallel to I-25, the only thing that illuminated the dark field Barnett was stranded in were his headlights. After the tumbling ceased, the initial thoughts flooded his mind.

“Oh my God, am I dead?” Barnett wondered. Something most people would question after rolling their vehicle five times. For a good ten seconds, Barnett had convinced himself he was dead because he felt nothing. He was in shock.

After the initial adrenaline wore off, Barnett came to. The cold breeze continued to waft the smell of gasoline into his face. He was now faced with the arduous task of escaping his battered vehicle or risk being burned alive if his truck sparked and caught fire. By this point he had lost most of his energy.

“It was like Superman being under Kryptonite,” Barnett stated in an interview.

His Cerebral Palsy coupled with him holding his head down while he was rolling zapped his energy. Barnett mustered up just enough energy to try to unbuckle himself. He failed. He tried again, this time lifting his body off of the seat belt in the hopes it would unbuckle. He was again unsuccessful.

With his remaining energy dwindling, Barnett tried sliding the seat belt over himself. He knew there was a chance he could suffocate if he got stuck in a compromising position, but he was desperate and willing to risk his life- he didn’t want to be burned alive. His three layers of winter clothes, however, prevented him from wiggling free. By this point, he began to call for help.

“Somebody had to have seen what happened,” he thought.

He was wrong. Barnett hung suspended for over 20 minutes before he gathered enough energy for his last ditch effort.

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered.

He placed his feet on the shifter of his transfer case and used his legs to thrust his body up. He reached his arm out of the window and pulled his body weight up. It was a massive effort for Barnett but, he was finally successful. He heard the buckle click and felt the tension of the seat belt ease up. He lowered himself to his feet.

He peered out the mangled mess that was once his baby and saw the flashing blue and red lights of police cars. He exhaled a sigh of relief. A police and civilian rushed to Barnett and his overturned truck. Soon after the police assessed him, four fire trucks, five or six police cars and a few emergency vehicles closed down one lane of traffic on I-25.

Barnett stood still while fire rescue cut him out of the contorted truck. He was swiftly transported to a warm ambulance where he was assessed by a veteran paramedic.

“Son, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve never seen someone walk away from something like this,” the paramedic stated matter-of-factly.

Barnett too was surprised. He managed to walk away from the accident nearly unscathed. His most severe injury was a minor laceration to his head and shoulder. His beloved PreRunner, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

He returned to Fort Collins three hours after the horrific accident. Despite the wreck and his baby being totaled, he was in good spirits. Not much can take the life out of Barnett. He chalked the accident up as another story to add to his vast list of life or death experiences. He phoned Perez.

“Kimbo, dude, you won’t believe what happened…”


(Left): Barnett at the scene of his rollover wreck collecting pieces of his 1986 Toyota PreRunner. (Right): Tracks where Barnett veered off I-25
(Above): Pictures of Barnett’s PreRunner after the accident.