TUPELO • Imagine driving down a crowded five-lane street and suddenly discovering your car will not stop. There are cars, trucks and red lights everywhere but no way to stop.
Armani Winfun does not have to imagine it. On the evening of July 23, the brakes went out on her car on North Gloster Street. Thanks to the teamwork of a 911 dispatcher and three Tupelo police officers, the car was brought to a halt without too much incident.
“It was a potentially deadly situation that turned into just an exciting day,” said Lee 911 director Paul Harkins.
Winfun got off work around 8 p.m. that Thursday and wanted to go home to Saltillo when she first noticed the brakes were not working on her 2006 Ford Fusion. She wanted to turn north onto Gloster to go home but to avoid hitting a car in the right lane, she had to make a sharp left turn onto Gloster.
And so the 18-year-old Winfun began her exciting 5-mile ride.
Driving south, Winfun rolled past the five traffic lights in the mall area and continued on. She went through the Town Creek bottom and headed up the hill by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. She was unable to stop at the signals at North Green Street or Spicer Drive.
As she approached McCullough Boulevard, she knew it was time to do something.
“I had already gone through three red lights,” Winfun said. “I knew I needed to call the police and get help. I knew I couldn’t keep going south toward Main Street and I managed to turn around by Pizza vs. Taco.”
The impromptu U-turn had her heading north, back toward the mall area, but help was on the way. Tupelo police had officers in the area, one to the north and one to the south of her.
“We were able to clear traffic and open up a lane for her,” said Lt. John Moses. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years and I have never seen a mechanical failure like this.
“There is not a protocol, so the other officers and I were throwing out ideas to her – put it in neutral, try the emergency brake.”
The emergency brake did not work, but putting it in neutral did. She did pick up some speed coming down MDOT hill, but the natural incline on the other side of the creek bottom helped slow the car.
“It was going slow enough by the time it got close to Chili’s, we told her to turn into a parking lot,” Moses said. “I didn’t know if she would get the message in time, but she turned in right after I said it.”
Three police officers jumped out of their patrol vehicles and manhandled the runaway car to a stop in a restaurant parking lot. The officers then stayed with Winfun until her mother arrived to carry her home.
Harkins noted how amazingly calm Winfun was while talking to 911 dispatcher Bailey Whitehead.
“It was matter of fact the way she said she had already gone through three red lights and she would like not to crash into anybody,” Harkins said.
During a ceremony to recognize all those involved Friday, Winfun admitted that calmness was just a facade.
“I was nervous, but I knew it wasn’t the time for me to freak out and panic,” Winfun said. “Besides, I knew who had it in his hands.”
Her mother was amazed listening to the 911 recording of the young driver staying calm and relaying information to the dispatcher while avoiding collisions.
“She is normally dramatic about everything,” Jo Ann Winfun said. “I’m proud of her.”
Whitehead, who has been a 911 dispatcher for about a year, said she has fielded life-threatening calls before, but this one was different.
“We have a protocol for what to do when an accelerator sticks (and a car won’t stop) but nothing for the brakes going out,” Whitehead said. “We had to wing almost all of it.
“Everybody involved stayed calm, and everything worked out.”
Winfun’s car was a graduation present and had been checked out by a mechanic before the May purchase. The young driver noticed a strange noise a few days before. Figuring it was the brakes, Winfun’s mother scheduled an appointment with Midas, but they couldn’t get to it until the next day.
“The next day, I thought I could add some more brake fluid and drive it to Midas,” said Jo Ann Winfun. “That didn’t work. I had to have it towed.
“(The Midas mechanic) said the rotor and pads were destroyed. He didn’t know how she made it.”