Watching the horrifying footage of the recent Boston marathon bombings was traumatic for everyone. But I knew exactly how that blood-splattered scene would be; I’d be able to smell the stench of burning flesh, hear the moaning of the injured and feel the ringing in my ears from being so close to where the explosive detonated.
That’s because I survived a bomb blast in Bali, Indonesia, which killed Dan, my husband of five weeks, my best friend and 200 others.
It devastated my life for more than a decade, but now I’ve used my terrible experience to help other burns victims. I wish I could talk to the survivors of the Boston bombings, let them know that although it will be hard to get over their shrapnel injuries – the severe wounds from where metal or other foreign objects embedded in their skin – and their lives will never be the same, like me, they will eventually find a way to use what they’ve been through to make a difference. Of course, it won’t be easy, but they will get there.
At first it was a battle for me to find any reason to even get out of bed. But I fought through grief and managed to make my life have some meaning – not just for me but for the memory of Dan and the others who lost their lives on October 12, 2002.
Every day I still wish that we hadn’t gone to Bali, but eventually I accepted that I couldn’t turn back the clock however much I wish I could. We went there with friends on the spur of the moment.
Dan, 31, and I had got married in Surrey, UK, five weeks before and just returned from a blissful honeymoon in Sri Lanka. We shouldn’t have gone to Bali. It was too soon to be rushing off again, but we had the money – I was a stocks trader and Dan was a lawyer, both based in Hong Kong – and Bali is where we’d first met two years earlier and where we’d got engaged. It was our island. So we flew off as a group of ten including my best friend Annika Linden, for a rugby weekend.
The last dance
After arriving safely on the evening of October 12, 2002 we all decided to go to the Sari Club on Kuta Beach. We got there at 11pm and as we walked in we heard Cher’s Believe playing. “I’m going to have a dance with Annika,” I told Dan. He nodded. “Go ahead,” he said.
We’d been dancing for barely a few minutes when the dance floor seemed to rock. There was a huge flash, along with the feeling that all of the air was being sucked out of the room, then blown up in a deafening explosion.
Suddenly I was thrown in the air. Then I was falling and landed heavily on the floor with debris crashing on to me and all around. “Was that a bomb?” I thought.
I looked down and saw that my legs were on fire. Seeing the destruction and chaos, my mind went blank for a moment. But despite the burning pain in my legs, my first thought was whether Dan was OK.
I pulled myself up through a gap in the corrugated ceiling that had collapsed on us and ran – my legs still on fire – across the roof and down into the cul-de-sac below.
I was screaming for help and a man who’d been at the club found what looked like a blanket and threw it over me to put out the flames. His friends found a mattress and laid me on it gently, before carrying me out as debris was falling all around us.
The pain was excruciating but I kept thinking about Dan and Annika and the rest of our friends. I remembered that Annika was right next to me when the bomb went off and if I had survived, I guessed she must have too.
I scanned the streets to see if I could spot them, but I couldn’t. All around me there was chaos. People were screaming and running from buildings that were on fire.
Someone was passing around a mobile phone so I grabbed it and phoned my mum in the UK. “There’s been an explosion in the club here, but I’m OK,” I told her. “I’ve suffered some burns, I’m not sure how bad they are, but don’t worry.” I then asked her to phone Dan’s mum and Annika’s mum to see if they’d called.
Terror and chaos
I watched the surrounding pandemonium in a daze. Clubbers covered in blood and dust were yelling, crying and searching for their missing friends and family. Others were trying to help people who couldn’t move or were caught under the debris.
Meanwhile the pain in my burnt legs, hands and back was excruciating. It was three hours before they could clear the entrance of the cul-de-sac and get an ambulance to us. There was one doctor and a nurse who were assessing around 70 of us. I was the seventh person to be seen, meaning I was the seventh worst injured. I was taken to a local hospital on the back of a flatbed truck on a mattress with an Indonesian guy flicking off embers falling on us from the burning buildings.
The hospital was understaffed and had run out of morphine to numb the pain. Eventually a doctor began attending to me. The first thing he did was pull off the charred skin from my shoulders and arms. I was shrieking in pain and kept counting to 100 to stop myself from blacking out. I was put on a drip and lay worrying about Dan and the others. I still had no idea where they were and all I could do was hope that they were alive. The following day I was flown to Brisbane Royal Hospital, Australia, so my burns could be treated.
Back home, Mum had called Dan’s parents to tell them what happened. They called his law firm who told them to get on the first plane out to Australia and from there to Bali. However, Dan’s parents were so kind-hearted that they gave their seats to my parents saying, “Polly’s alive. We’ll wait and see what we hear about Dan, but right now Polly’s there, so you go.”
Dad and Mum arrived in Brisbane on Sunday and when Mum saw me she fainted. Until then they’d been more worried about Dan than me because they hadn’t had any news about him. But when they saw how badly injured I was they were shocked. I had lost a lot of skin from my back, shoulders and legs in the fire and had suffered 43 per cent burns. I had been rushed straight into intensive care and within hours had my first of 11 skin grafts and operations. When I came around doctors told me that they’d taken almost every piece of non-burned skin they could to graft on to my burns.
The pain was unbearable, but all I could think about was Dan and Annika. For some reason deep down I knew the news, when it came, wouldn’t be good. It was two days after the bomb that I heard Dan had died in the blast. He was one of the last to be identified. His mum Felicity had arrived from the UK and together with my mum they told me he’d gone. “He was very close to the blast,” my mother said. “He probably wouldn’t have been in pain.” Newspaper reports said the blast was a terrorist attack targeting holidaymakers.
I was also told that Annika was dead. I couldn’t stop crying. Days and weeks passed, all of them a blur of grief.
Something to focus on
My body was slowly recuperating but my heart was broken. I didn’t have any reason to want to get better. My husband and my best friend had died. I’d survived, but why? Then one day I heard the medical team complaining that there wasn’t enough funding for adult burns survivors, and I promised that when I got home I would raise some for them. I realised that I needed something other than the physical pain and relentless emotional anguish to focus on.
I was well enough to fly home to the UK just a week before Dan’s funeral. At his memorial service I told the 800 people present I was planning to set up Dan’s Fund For Burns to help adult burns survivors.
We organised several fundraisers – climbs, dinner balls, walks – and I asked all my friends in banking to chip in. In one year we raised £25,000 (Dh139,876) – enough to improve facilities at the hospital where I was treated.
I was glad to be helping other burns victims, but my life was a mess. I went back to work as a banker but spent a long time wishing I’d died too. I’d write Dan letters saying I couldn’t keep going without him. I felt guilty I’d survived and even though I knew I owed it to Dan and Annika to piece my life back together, I didn’t know where to start.
Three years after the bomb I quit banking to work for the charity full time while pursuing a career as an interior designer. I wanted to do something creative. I enjoyed it and slowly realised I’d been so busy blocking everything out I needed help. I started therapy. It was very hard because I was surrounded by Dan’s things.
But the following year I went on a skiing holiday and met Andy Brooks through friends.
I had the same buzz and connection I’d had with Dan. I told him everything. At this time I was also scheduled to undergo a series of operations to release my tight scarred skin.
Andy and I married in 2007 and Dan was remembered in the speeches. I felt guilty about moving on at first, but I kept thinking if Dan had been the one to survive I wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone.
I made the decision not to let that one terrible incident become everything. I lost too much in that bomb, I couldn’t let it take any other chance of happiness too. I have two children now, Lawrence, five, and Nicky, four, who bring us so much joy.
It’s more than ten years since I lost Dan and Annika, and the fund has helped hundreds of people, having raised nearly £1.5 million. We’ve had black-tie dinners, triathlons, rugby sevens tournaments, auctions, anything we can think of to raise funds for burns victims. There have been plenty of generous people who’ve donated and raised money doing marathons and climbs. We’ve also had a lot of sponsorship and support from Emirates Airline over the years.
My best tribute to Dan and my friend Annika is to live my life and let the bombers know they did not ruin it. They tried very hard but they didn’t succeed.
Polly, 40, lives in Shalford, UK, with her husband Andy and their two children
Making a difference
Who: Polly Miller Brooks
Where: In the UK
What: Set up Dan’s Fund For Burns, a charity to help burns victims.
Log on to www.dansfundforburns. org for more info or to donate