'I'm haunted by the smell of burning skin'
WARNING: Graphic content
THERE are a lot of things Jamie Manning can't recall about the horror car crash that changed his life, but he will never forget the potent smell of his burning flesh.
Occasionally, in quiet moments, it's not the terrifying aftermath of the accident that flashes in his mind, nor the sound of his wife Karen's voice when he emerged from a seven-week coma or the painful months of rehabilitation that followed.
It's that stomach-turning stench of cooking meat - his own body engulfed in flames - that still haunts the New South Wales cowboy.
"It was horrible," Mr Manning, now 42, said. "I'll never, ever be able to forget it, that smell."
The sun was just setting on March 27, 2014 when he came to in the wreckage of his ute, immediately aware of the fact he was stuck.
"I remember realising I was trapped, the motor basically sitting in my lap. A bloke who had been driving behind me tried to help but he was an older fella and couldn't get me out."
A few seconds earlier, Mr Manning had been on the home stretch to his farm, about 20 kilometres outside Dubbo, having just finished helping a mate with some odd jobs at his property, following a long day at work as a stock salesman.
"I remember the road was a bit wet," he said.
"Suddenly there was a truck coming towards me on a bend and I had nowhere to go. I went off the road and lost control of the vehicle, and collided with a tree."
The seatbelt was stuck tight around his waist and his legs were pinned beneath the dash. The ute was quickly engulfed in flames.
A man at a nearby property heard the commotion and came to investigate, not knowing at the time that he was set to become Mr Manning's guardian angel.
"He's a big fella, about 120 kilos, but even so he struggled," Mr Manning said.
"I said to him, 'Mate, you've got to leave me, the car's going to blow up' because the whole cab was full of flames."
Mr Manning is sharing his story as part of A Split Second - news.com.au's campaign on road safety highlighting the human stories behind Australia's horror road toll.
More than 1200 people lose their lives in traffic accidents each year, but more than 35,000 are also hospitalised with injuries.
Mr Manning should have been part of the first statistics, rather than the latter, if not for the rescuer who refused to leave him and dragged his scorched body from the car.
"He wasn't to be there that day. He should've still been at work at the time of the accident but he ended up knocking off early.
"A few months before, his wife had also suggested they get some fire extinguishers … they put one in his car, which also had a knife in it."
With the blade, the man cut the melted seatbelt away from Mr Manning's body, and with the extinguisher put out the flames that still licked his body when he was free from the wreck.
Less than 60 seconds later, the ute exploded.
He was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital and then flown to Sydney, where the extent of his injuries were realised.
"I had burns to 40 per cent of my body. Starting from the top, my face was pretty well burnt off - nose, eyelids, left ear and lips. My leg was burnt right through to the bone, the joint.
"My body temperature was 42 degrees, which is the point where your organs start shutting down. I had infections. I was laying on a bed of ice in hospital.
"I had a fractured skull and bleeding to the brain, I broke my back in two places which has now been fused with rods up either side of it. I had a broken right hip, dislocated left hip, I broke nearly all my ribs. There were a few internal injuries too."
When Mr Manning hadn't arrived home, his wife Karen started to panic and jumped into the car, eventually coming across the remnants of the accident.
She feared the father of their three children was dead, not realising doctors were already battling to save his life.
For seven weeks, Mr Manning was in a coma and she had to make life-changing decisions on his behalf, including to amputate his left leg and left hand.
"She was worried how I'd be not able to ride a horse. They told her it wasn't going to matter much because the quality of life from the bleeding on the brain would probably leave me mummified."
That early prognosis was one she knew Mr Manning would not accept.
As well as a full-time cowboy, he was a gifted bull rider who also put his lifelong love of sports to full use.
"When I was a child, I was into anything that rolled or bounced," he said. "That was me. Even being five foot four or whatever I am, I played basketball, tennis, golf, football, anything really."
He was also incredibly hands-on at work - a job that required him to muster cattle, jump on and off horses, build fences and wield a chainsaw on a daily basis.
How would he cope not being able to do all of that?
When he emerged from the coma, doctors removed his breathing tube and told Karen she had a few minutes to talk to him.
"She thought I'd say something to her like, 'Hello darling, I'm OK'," Mr Manning laughed. "They took it out and I started yelling about a fella running around the bed trying to attack me. I was delusional on the medication."
He spent the next five weeks in the intensive care and burns units. The couple decided to bar their three kids from visiting, such was the confronting nature of his injuries.
"I was sent to a rehab facility and I was meant to be there for 12 months," Mr Manning said.
"It wasn't comfortable. The emotional stuff was negative for me. I thought if I was going to survive, I had to be at home."
And so, against advice, he checked himself out after two weeks and returned to the family's property.
It was at that moment, during a quiet conversation with himself, that Mr Manning decided he wouldn't just survive. He would live.
"I came home, we sourced our own experts, physio and doctors, and went from there. I was back in an environment I knew with my family around me."
His road to recovery was an incredibly long and painful one, and Mr Manning endured more than two-dozen surgeries.
The devotion of his wife and family inspired him to stay positive, he said.
"The positive approach is why I recovered, no doubt about it. There's no way you can do something if you're always telling yourself you can't. You've got to be positive about where you're going.
"The doctors told me I'd never work again. That was my biggest drive - to prove them wrong."
When he speaks to news.com.au about his incredible experience, he has been back at work, defying expectations, for the past eight months.
"As we speak, I'm standing in the yards," he said over the sound of mooing cows.
Things have changed on multiple fronts for Mr Manning though.
At home, his wife has had to assume more responsibilities - a contribution and sacrifice he describes glowingly.
"My wife is great, really great," he said.
"I think the kids struggled a little bit with it, trying to concentrate at school and that sort of thing but they're pretty strong … they've managed to cope well."
At work, his role has shifted significantly from a highly physical one to more managerial in style.
"I had to change the way I did a few things. I'm obviously not out chasing wild cattle anymore but it's more of an overall view of the job."
And he's become a road safety advocate, speaking to young people in schools who are on the cusp of getting their licences. He has also travelled with NSW Rugby League to clubs across the state to speak to men who are like him.
"I was an everyday person like them," he said.
"You look at me with one hand, one leg and a burnt face and hearing my story, it really hits them hard. It makes them realise that it can happen to anybody."
Whoever he speaks to, Mr Manning said most are struck by how he views that day.
He does not consider it the worst of his life, as many would expect, but rather the luckiest - lucky that he survived, carried on with his life and can watch his "beautiful kids" grow up alongside his wife.
"After the accident, it made me realise all the little things in life you can sometimes take for granted. I appreciate the little things now."