Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: 20 years after the bomb blasts that devastated Bali, brave survivor Therese Fox shares her story

Therese defied the odds to continue her life as a mother, nurse and grandmother.
Loading the player...

The vertical scars that run down Therese Fox’s arms and legs stand out among the fading patchwork of burns and skin grafts that are hidden beneath her nurse’s uniform.

Unlike the injuries that were scorched onto her body when suicide bombers attacked two crowded tourist hotspots in Bali, in October 2002 – killing 202 innocent people and injuring hundreds more – these scars were not inflicted by hate.

They are the scars made by army doctors aboard a military aircraft at Denpasar Airport, as they battled to airlift the Victorian mother back to Australia to say goodbye to her children.

Nobody expected Therese, then 29, to survive the flight back to Darwin, or the air transfer to Sydney’s Concord Hospital.

There, specialists assessing the horrific third-degree burns covering 85 per cent of her body, said there was no chance anyone could survive such devastating injuries. They were wrong.

As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that claimed the life of her friend, Bronwyn Cartwright, and 87 other Australians, Therese continues to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.

She is living up to the nickname she was given at Concord, “The Miracle Woman of Bali”.

No one expected Therese to survive the flight back to Darwin due to her extensive injuries

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

It’s been a long and agonising road back to health for the intensely private mother-of-two who has defied extraordinary odds to rebuild her life after an idyllic holiday in paradise became a nightmare.

Today, reflecting on the doomed trip from her home in the small township of Grovedale, where she and her twin brother, Damien, both adopted, grew up, she recalls the rocky prelude to her girls-only getaway and wonders if it was a sign of things to come.

“When we booked to go to Bali in late 2001, it was supposed to be a holiday for four, but Bronwyn’s younger sister, Jess, pulled out and so did our friend, Michelle Larkins,” Therese tells The Weekly.

More concerning, Damien was so alarmed about the holiday that he begged his sister to cancel.

At that time, the world was still reeling from the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US mainland on 9/11 and Damian had been gripped by an overwhelming premonition that Therese’s holiday would be dangerous.

Therese dismissed his concerns, saying she and Bronwyn planned a quiet week in Kuta, shopping and sightseeing, followed by a week at a spa in Ubud.

But when they arrived at the airport, Bronwyn realised she’d forgotten her passport and had to go home to find it. They nearly missed the flight.

Therese’s brother, Damien, tried to get her to cancel her trip after becoming worried something bad would happen.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

Despite the hiccups, their week in Kuta was idyllic.

“We went shopping, snorkelling and sightseeing and spent our last morning in Kuta bungy jumping, where I recall Bronwyn saying that, if anything happened, at least she’d die happy,” says Therese, sadly.

The friends were returning to their hotel to pack when the bus cruised through Kuta’s party precinct of Jalan Legian, which was packed with Aussie football teams celebrating the end of the season.

“Bronwyn took one look at the crowded bars and said we couldn’t leave Kuta without having a drink and a photo at the iconic Sari Club,” Therese explains. “So, we agreed to come back later for a farewell drink before we left.”

At 10.45pm on Saturday October 12, the friends made their way back to Legian Road, which was lit up like fairyland and teeming with tourists, taxis and traffic.

Unable to locate the Sari Club, they followed the music into Paddy’s Irish Bar, where the party was just getting started.

“The place was packed with tourists, we grabbed a couple of cocktails and made our way onto the dance floor,” recalls Therese.

At 11.07, Therese went to the bar for two last drinks.

The blasts completely obliterated the Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

She was vaguely aware of an Indonesian man walking purposefully behind her towards the dance floor where Bronwyn was dancing with some Aussie footballers.

“I remember thinking he looked out of place among the party people,” says Therese, convinced she glimpsed the suicide bomber preparing to detonate his deadly explosive vest.

“A split second later, the music died, the power went off and everything suddenly stopped. I felt the air being sucked from the room and my body hurtling upwards where my head smashed into the ceiling, fracturing my skull, and knocking me out.”

While Therese lay unconscious in the smouldering wreckage, a more powerful car bomb exploded outside the Sari Club, leaving a blazing crater, and killing and injuring hundreds more.

Eerily, thousands of miles away in Australia, watching a thunderstorm sweeping the skies over Geelong, Damien immediately knew his ominous premonition had just come true.

“When I woke, the place was in darkness and flames were leaping from the bar, which had been turned into a fireball,” says Therese, whose eardrums burst in the blast. “The heat was choking, there were bodies everywhere and bloody, injured people pulling themselves out of the wreckage.”

Initially, Therese and her friend Bronwyn had an idyllic week in Kuta, shopping, snorkelling and bungy jumping.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

Realising she was on fire, Therese rolled in the debris to extinguish the flames then crawled outside and into a doorway where she observed the unfolding carnage.

“It’s true what people say about the white light you see when you’re dying,” she says, describing the bright, warm light that crept over her, leaving her strangely calm and peaceful.

“It seemed to be telling me to leave, but then I thought about my children and knew I had to stay, so I started screaming for help.”

Therese’s cries were heard by an off-duty UN soldier who handed her his T-shirt to hold in front of her.

The intense heat had scorched her clothes off, leaving only charred cotton undies.

The soldier carried her to an army colleague, Australian soldier Rodney Cocks, who was so shocked by her horrific injuries that he was too afraid to touch her.

Instead, he gently encouraged her to follow him away from Bali’s new ground zero, and she limped meekly after him back to his hotel, 1.5km away.

At the hotel, Queensland teachers Cath Byrne and Rada van der Werff led Therese to a makeshift triage by the pool while Rodney disappeared to find transport to take her to hospital.

The friends encouraged her to lie on a blanket on the lawn, where they were shocked when the soles of her feet melted off in front of their eyes.

What appeared to be a charred scarf around her neck turned out to be her melted face.

The friends, who had arrived in Bali that day, took turns pouring cool bottled water over her sizzling flesh.

“Oh my God … where’s Bronwyn?” gasped Therese.

While Therese was unaware of it, Bronwyn had already died instantly in the blast.

Therese was lifted into the back of a ute, and driven screaming in agony to a nearby medical centre with the two teachers trying to comfort her.

Two teachers tried to look after Therese as she was transported to the hospital.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

The Bali International Medical Centre resembled a war zone. It was overrun with blast casualties and Therese spent hours on the floor screaming in pain.

“I remember Cath telling me to scream for morphine before it ran out,” says Therese, who was transferred to a larger hospital in Denpasar where she spent the next 36 hours fighting for her life.

“I spent hours in a makeshift hospital on the tarmac at Denpasar Airport because the army doctors didn’t think I’d survive the journey back to Darwin,” says Therese, whose anguished pleas for her children led a Balinese nurse to beg the medics to lift her onto a Hercules aircraft.

“On the plane, an army doctor warned that unless he cut into my limbs to relieve the pressure, the flight would kill me.”

With no anaesthetic or painkillers left, Therese was given something to bite on and passed out from the pain.

In Darwin, she was placed in an induced coma, and by the time she reached Concord her temperature had fallen so low that plans for life-saving surgery were abandoned.

“My parents were told that I had no hope of surviving such extensive injuries, but Mum was convinced I’d heard her voice, because my temperature suddenly went up and the operation went ahead.”

Therese with her father, Chris, whose face was the first thing she saw when she emerged from weeks in an induced coma.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

While Therese lay in a coma, her mother, Dawn, kept a bedside vigil, privately fearing another mother’s daughter was underneath the bandages, while her own lay beneath the rubble in Bali.

“My dad’s face was the first thing I saw when I emerged from the coma the following week,” Therese says. “Mum was crying and telling me I was home and safe.”

And while doctors remained pessimistic about her chances of recovery, the sixth sense that had told Damien his twin was in danger now told him she would pull through.

Over the next 12 months Therese underwent over 100 agonising operations, skin grafts and dermabrasion procedures to remove shrapnel embedded in her full-thickness burns.

“I couldn’t walk, feed or wash myself, I couldn’t hold a pen or sign my name, and I couldn’t even control my own body temperature because my sweat glands had melted in the blast,” says Therese.

Her burns had left little viable skin for grafting apart from a strip on her wrist where a bracelet had been, so doctors used synthetic skin. They grafted it onto Therese’s back and face, which Dawn massaged daily with sorbolene.

“Just surviving was agony, and when I discovered that Bronwyn hadn’t made it, I was absolutely broken,” Therese says.

“The pain of my burns was nothing compared with the guilt I felt about surviving when Bronwyn hadn’t.”

The aftermath of the bombing in Kuta

(Image: Getty Images)

Even more paralysing was being separated from her children.

“I missed them so much, but I couldn’t bear them seeing me so disfigured and helpless, and the thought of watching them leave the hospital without me broke my heart. In the end it was easier not to see them,” she says.

They were finally reunited on her 30th birthday, that December, when their dad, David Dorling, brought them to Concord for the party Dawn had organised on the burns unit.

Guardian angels Cath and Rada were VIP guests.

“They had counselling to prepare them for seeing me again, and Alex was so brave and came straight to me, saying I didn’t look as bad as he’d expected,” says Therese. “But Katie cried because she no longer recognised me. The mum she remembered was fit and skinny with long, brown hair – nothing like the short-haired patient in the full-body pressure suit who couldn’t even hug her.”

The battle for survival continued in Melbourne, where Therese spent another nine months battling life-threatening infections.

“I was still being treated at The Alfred Hospital when I saw myself for the first time and was absolutely devastated,” Therese remembers. “I had piled on so much weight from the steroids that I wasn’t just disfigured by burns but really bloated and no longer recognised my own face. I didn’t look or feel like me – it was like my entire identity had been obliterated.”

Therese continued her recovery in Melbourne where she battled life-threatening infections

(Image: Grace Petrou)

Twelve months to the day after she had left for Bali, Therese finally returned home in her full-body pressure suit. But while her house looked the same, everything had changed.

“The place was so empty without the kids, who were still at their dad’s and only saw me on weekends. I spent that first year sleeping, dosed on anti-depressants, morphine, steroids, antibiotics and sleeping tablets,” she says.

But surgery to remove bone that had grown over her calcified elbows restored Therese’s mobility, and in time her independence.

She found a counsellor, stopped the steroids and as the weight dropped off and the kids came home, life returned to a new kind of normal.

“I had been told I would never drive again, raise my kids, live independently, wear make-up or return to nursing,” says Therese. “But I knew I would prove everyone wrong – I had to! I had two young children who needed me and a mum who refused to let me give up. It’s because of my love for them, and their love for me, that I am here today.”

Therese and her grandson, Flynn.

(Image: Supplied and used with permission)

Twenty years is a lifetime.

In that time, Therese has raised a family, bought a house, mourned the deaths of her parents, returned to nursing and become a grandmother to Katie’s son, Flynn, aged seven.

It is Flynn’s curiosity about her scars that has prompted the release of a new book about her extraordinary battle for survival that former PM John Howard describes as an inspirational and humbling story of courage and hope.

“When Flynn asked me about the scars, I told him that a bad man lit a fire, but Out of the Ashes explains the truth and is my legacy for him, and any future grandchildren,” she says.

“I want them to understand that, while these scars tell a story, they are not who I am and they don’t define me.”

Today, Therese’s flawless face is testimony to her mother’s healing hands, and unshakeable love.

And she knows Dawn will be looking over her this month when she returns to Bali for the first time since the tragedy, to honour her friend and complete their holiday.

It is a terrifying rite of passage, but one she will undertake with her family.

“I am 50 in December and there are so many things I want to do,” she says. “But I have unfinished business in Bali and need to close that chapter of my life so I can move on.”

Out of the Ashes by Megan Norris, published by Big Sky Publishing through Simon & Schuster, is available now.

You can read this story and many others in the November issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.

Related stories