Saturday morning, Oct. 25, started out just like any other regular weekend at Chris Barrett’s hunting club in Fayette, Miss.
The 33-year-old Harahan resident rolled out of bed early and made the trip to his ladder stand to do some bowhunting while his 4-year-old son Payton and father-in-law, Ernie Franatovich, slept-in before they hit the woods around 7 a.m. to chase some squirrels.
The improbable series of events that would unfold over the next three hours that morning resulted in Barrett losing his left eye, and could ultimately leave him blind in his right eye for the rest of his life.
He still sometimes wonders how he actually even survived the ordeal.
“My dental X-ray showed 53 pellets in it,” Barrett said. “It’s unbelievable how many pellets I have in my face, and I’m not dead.”
Everything changed in one 20-gauge shotgun blast of No. 6 lead that cool, crisp morning — mainly due to hunter complacency.
And Barrett shared his story in hopes that no one else experiences what he and his family have endured in the last eight weeks.
“This was a situation that anybody could have put themselves in, and it was just a little bit of complacency and relaxation,” he said. “A lot of things fell into place that were bad, and it’s something I want to make people aware of.
“It’s one of those things you think could never happen to you. And it happened to us: two very experienced hunters.”
After almost three hours in the stand that morning without seeing a deer, Barrett decided to head down and join Franatovich and his son squirrel hunting. He made the short 4-wheeler ride to the end of the logging trail he knew they were walking, and headed in on foot to meet up.
But, unfortunately, he never called his father-in-law to let him know he was leaving the deer stand.
About 500 yards down the trail, dressed in full camouflage with no hunter orange, Barrett decided to sit on the ground to rest — just before the old logging road turned hard to the right.
“To the right of me there was a bush and a small pine tree,” he said.
He estimates he was there only five to 10 minutes when he heard his son talking as the the youngster and his grandfather advanced up the trail toward Barrett.
“But it didn’t click in my mind to say, ‘Hey guys, I’m over here,’” he said. “I just figured I’d see them pop the corner.”
Barrett was still sitting, but had turned to look over his left shoulder to see if he could see them coming through the brush.
Incredibly, at that very moment, a squirrel started running up the side of the narrow pine tree 2 feet from Barrett.
He vividly remembers watching his father-in-law through the brush as he raised his 20-gauge and fired.
“I never saw Payton. I saw Ernie first. As soon as I saw Ernie, he threw that gun up,” Barrett said. “I do remember him mouthing, ‘Squirrel,’ but then it was too late.”
The blast from Franatovich’s modified choke caught Barrett on the left side of his face and upper shoulder at only 25 yards, and he estimates he took about half the pattern.
“It bowled me over and I remember screaming, ‘No!’ Ernie was in total awe. He was just like freaking out, saying, ‘Oh my God!’
“As far as he was concerned, I was half- to three-quarters-of-a-mile away on a deer stand, so he had no idea I was there. I wasn’t in between him and the squirrel,” Barrett said. “There was just no reason for him to have thought I would have ever been there.”
Barrett was bleeding badly through his nose and mouth, and his father-in-law ran to get the 4-wheeler while Payton stayed with his dad.
“Within 30 seconds to a minute, I stood up if you can believe that,” he said. “I actually picked my 4-year-old up and hugged him, and very softly told him goodbye and that I loved him.
“Because to be honest, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die.”
He was transported to a local hospital, and then air-lifted to Jackson, where surgeons removed his left eye that afternoon. His wife, who was visiting her family in Utah, flew back to meet him the next day, but Barrett didn’t wake up until four days later.
“My left eye socket was broken, my left cheekbone was broken, my nose was broken and I have what looks like acne scars where the pellets raged trough the side of my face,” he said. “One pellet hit ¼-inch from my carotid artery, and one went into my brain through my sinus cavity.”
His CT scan still shows between 90 and 110 pellets lodged under his skin. Doctors are trying their best to see if he will ever gain any usable vision in his right eye.
“My right eye looks like it only took one pellet, but it hit to the front of the eye,” he said. “The impact caused an implosion which severely damaged my retina.
“When they talk about usable vision, they’re talking about lights and shadows, maybe some kind of close vision but nothing like you would see. But I don’t want to put words in their mouth.
“The ultimate thing he said was, 'I really don’t know what you’ll see or if you’ll see again.’”
The lifelong fisherman and 15-year hunter is trying to make some good come from this tragedy, and hopes to speak to hunter safety classes about wearing hunter orange and not ever getting complacent in hunting situations.
“I want to talk to people, and say, ‘Y'all look at me. I’m a perfect example of why you should wear hunter orange, even on private land. Why you shouldn’t be walking in the direction of someone else hunting if they don’t know you’re there. I’m a walking, talking example of it,” he said. “I’m not proud of it, but I have no problem saying it because if I could save one other person from this happening, that would be worth any kind of embarrassment or negative comments people might have to say about it.
“If that’s enough to put some fear in some kids and their dads, I’d be so happy.”
For now, he is focused on getting adjusted to the new reality he faces. His career as a machinist is likely over, and in the midst of doctor’s appointments and physical therapy, he’s trying to keep a positive attitude while tackling the daily challenges of someone who’s recently lost his vision.
“All my friends always said I had a hard head. I’ve had my head rattled by some pretty big guys, and they could never knock me out,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been rumored I have a hard head. Now it’s been proven."
Barrett and his wife, Heather, have Payton and two more young sons: 3-year-old Wyatt and 17-month-old Reese. Heather was a stay-at-home mom, but now she’s taken on the additional role of his primary caregiver.
He hopes everyone who enjoys any kind of hunting will use his story as an example to be extra-safe and vigilant, no matter how much experience they might have in the field.
“In a nutshell, I forgot about the ultimate safety factor: that somebody was walking around with a loaded gun coming my way still hunting,” Barrett said. “I forgot my father-in-law was hunting and just didn’t know I was there."