Stacey Oliver/Trinity MirrorCatrin Pugh was going home. The bubbly Welsh 19-year-old had just finished working at a ski resort in the French Alps for four months. The pay was minimal, but this gap-year adventure came with a bonus: She could ski for free on her days off. Yet as much as Catrin enjoyed the experience of living away from her parents, she had felt a bit homesick. By the time spring arrived, she was eager to see her family.
So on April 16, 2013, along with 50 other young seasonal workers, Catrin boarded a charter bus for the 20-hour drive from France to the United Kingdom, grabbing the seat directly behind bus driver Maurice Wrightson. The first stage of the trip, an 8.5-mile descent from the resort, was famous for being one of the most grueling climbs of the Tour de France bicycle race—at each of the route’s 21 hairpin turns, there is a plaque commemorating past winners of that stage. As Wrightson maneuvered the bus down turn after tight turn, Catrin looked out on snowcapped peaks and sun-filled valleys. This is so beautiful, she thought. I know I will be back.
Suddenly, just before bend 21—the mountain’s last hairpin—the bus sped up unexpectedly. “The brakes are gone!” shouted Wrightson as the 12-ton vehicle continued to gain speed, flirting with the mountain’s 300-foot drop. With the passengers screaming in the background, Wrightson violently turned the bus to the right, hoping to stop it by crashing into the side of the mountain. Catrin’s seatmate and friend, Shaun Stewart, cradled her in a headlock. “Brace yourself!” he shouted, telling her to wedge her feet against the seat in front of them to prevent herself from flying through the windshield.
The bus did indeed crash into the side of the mountain, with a force that threw most passengers onto the floor amid the sound of twisting metal and shattering glass. Then, as passengers toward the back of the bus began scrambling to safety through the windows, the fuel tank in the front exploded. Flames engulfed Wrightson, then dashed up the floor to find Catrin. The smell of burning flesh mixed with that of diesel fuel.
Courtesy Catrin Pugh via Trinity Mirror Stewart was able to stand up and pull Catrin off the bus. He and others stomped out the flames burning her clothes and singeing her skin. Lying on the side of the road, she raised her right arm and was horrified to see her mottled, burned flesh drop off in sheets. The pain was excruciating. Passengers ripped off their shirts to stop her bleeding and support her head. Some held a sheet over her to shield her from the sun. She didn’t stop screaming until paramedics arrived and put an oxygen mask on her face. Then she passed out. Wrightson died at the scene.
The message on Sara Pugh’s phone from her husband, Carl, was short and to the point: “Come home. Quickly. Nothing to worry about.” However, when she arrived, Carl’s face told a different story. “There’s been an accident,” he told Sara. “It’s Catrin.”
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Carl explained that he had gotten a call from France but didn’t know more than that. He had been given the number of a hospital for further information.
A helicopter had airlifted their daughter to the University Hospital in Grenoble, where doctors discovered she had burns over 96 percent of her body. Only her scalp, a small part of her face, and the soles of her feet were untouched. The doctors decided to transfer her to a burn unit at a larger medical center in Lyon. After finally reaching the hospital by phone, Carl learned that Catrin’s burns were so severe that doctors had hooked her up to a ventilator and put her into a medically induced coma. “It is very serious,” the doctor told him. “It would be best if you came right away.” Sara flew to Lyon the next morning. Carl, confined to a wheelchair after a hip replacement surgery, followed the day after.
Within 24 hours of the accident, Catrin’s body tissue had swelled to nearly twice its normal size, which is the body’s way of attempting to protect and heal itself. Catrin’s severe burns had ravaged her immune system, which in turn threatened her internal organs. Doctors had to act fast to replace the fluid that had escaped from the blood circulating around the burns or Catrin could go into cardiac arrest.
Jean-Pierre Clatot/Getty ImagesWhen Sara arrived at the hospital in Lyon, she first met with the head doctor. Before letting her see Catrin, he had a warning: “I have to tell you that her face is badly swollen. It’s not pretty.” Sara asked him, “Do you survive something like this?” The doctor answered gently, “A small—a very, very small—amount of people do.” She saw Catrin unconscious and tethered to a wall of blinking, whirring machines. Her body was completely swathed in a thermal blanket and thick white bandages, which also covered half her face. Sara reached out and touched Catrin’s bandaged arm. “Cat, it’s Mum. I am right here,” she told her, although Catrin would not be able to hear her. “We are going to get you better.” Back in the waiting room, Sara broke down in tears.
The next evening, after Carl had arrived and seen Catrin, he and Sara prepared for the worst. In their hotel room, he said softly, “She has to make it.” Carl stayed strong for Sara; it wasn’t until she finally fell asleep that he broke down too. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his princess. Ever since Catrin’s sister, Mari, was born, when Catrin was three, he’d called them “Princess One” and “Princess Two.”
But Carl also knew that Catrin was unusually resilient. “Strong-willed” is how he and Sara had often described her. She was always pushing herself. She started going to dance school when she was eight and loved getting on a stage to act and sing. Catrin’s dream had been to enroll in a theater school in London.
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The doctors agreed that Catrin’s best hopes lay with Liverpool’s Whiston Hospital and M. Ian James, MD, one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished burn specialists. Five days after her accident, an elite team at Whiston operated on Catrin in a determined effort to save her life. First, they scraped off her dead skin because it could have easily become infected. They took a small sample of unburned skin from her scalp and sent it to a laboratory to be grown, or cultured, for future grafting. Then they covered more than 40 percent of Catrin’s raw tissue with cadaver skin, 17/1,000 of an inch thick, from Liverpool’s national skin bank. The donated skin helps prevent infection, preserves body temperature, and promotes healing. It would eventually be replaced by newer skin grafts.
Catrin made it through the five-hour operation, but when Dr. James met with Sara and Carl, he was blunt about Catrin’s chances of survival. “Right now,” he said, “I am sorry to say, one in a thousand.” Infection was a constant threat; Dr. James’s team would need to change Catrin’s antiseptic dressings once or twice every day, in sessions lasting three to four hours. Because her organs had been so damaged, the threat of kidney failure or heart attack was ever present.
One week went by. Then another. Time and again, Catrin was operated on as surgeons harvested and grafted new skin. At three weeks, Dr. James told Carl and Sara that, miraculously, the odds of Catrin’s survival had improved to one in a hundred. He explained that Catrin would remain in a coma while she underwent even more extensive skin grafts and other operations. Every day, either Sara or Carl stood by her bed. Once, as Carl watched Catrin’s chest rise and fall, he found himself reaching to lightly hold his daughter’s heavily bandaged arm. “Come on, Cat. You can do this,” he whispered.
Trinity Mirror The doctors woke Catrin from her induced coma after three months. Her muscles had atrophied. She had lost 70 pounds, nearly half her body weight. She was too weak to hold her head up and would have to relearn how to stand and walk.
For months, Catrin would cry out in pain whenever anyone touched her. Painkillers helped, but Catrin dreaded having her dressings changed. Inevitably, as carefully as her nurses removed the dressings, they would peel away some raw skin. One morning, Catrin had had enough. “Nooooo!” she shouted at her nurses. “Please don’t do this! I hate you all!”
Fire had ravaged the pretty 19-year-old. Most of her face had been badly burned. The flames had claimed part of an ear and the tips of several fingers. Doctors had shaved off the luxurious long hair she had been so proud of; they would scrape her head for skin grafts six times while she was in the hospital. During her thrice-weekly baths, Catrin could finally see her burned, battered body, and it horrified her. Her skin looked like a scarred checkerboard of raw pinks and bloodied reds. No one will ever love me, she thought. She told Sara, “It would have been easier if I had died.”
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And Catrin still had not seen her face or her shaved head. When Donnas Wilkinson, a 30-year veteran nurse who had been supervising Catrin’s recovery, heard her tell her mother, “I cannot wait until I can shampoo my hair again,” the nurse realized it was time. She brought Catrin a hand mirror. Silence. Then screams. Then tears. “No! No!” Catrin cried as she looked at her emaciated, bruised, and bald reflection. No matter how much Wilkinson explained that her hair would grow back and she’d look so much better someday, Catrin kept crying.
It was weeks before Catrin could stand unaided; months before she could take a tentative first step. The constant pain, the heartbreak of her appearance, the frustration of having to learn to walk and even feed herself were too much. One day, Catrin broke down, telling her mother, “I’ll never be able to walk. I’ll never be normal!”
Having seen other burn patients sink into depression, Dr. James and Wilkinson went on the offensive. When Catrin refused to do her physiotherapy, Dr. James told her firmly, “If you ever want to use your hands again, you have to exercise them now.” He knew she had always loved to dance and perform, and he told her, “If you want to dance again, you need to start trying.” The psychology began working. Catrin pushed through the pain of physiotherapy by thinking, I’ll show them. She began to fight. She asked a nurse to help her take a selfie and bravely posted it on Instagram. I know I look horrible, but I’ll show the world! Catrin thought. The picture exposed her with a shaved, scabbed head, a feeding tube hanging from her nose—and a massive smile. The caption: “Getting there …”
Catrin worked tirelessly. She told herself, I need to turn into a survivor, not a victim. After nearly eight months in the hospital, she went home to continue her recovery. She began walking, then, after months of work, running on a treadmill, then jogging outdoors. She regained the use of her arms, controlling her pain with over-the-counter remedies. Her hair grew back. Her face was scarred but not disfigured.
Catrin had been home for just under a year and was walking unaided when she made an announcement to her parents: “I want to ski again.” She wanted to go back to the French Alps. Sara and Carl knew their daughter well enough not to doubt her resolve. Catrin began taking lessons using adapted skis (she laughingly called the contraption “my walker on skis”) to glide down an artificial dry ski slope in Wales. On December 23, 2014, twenty months after the accident, Catrin and her family and friends went to Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe. Under an impossibly blue sky, Catrin was helped into her skis. “I have butterflies in my stomach,” she confessed. She took off, skiing slowly but steadily down one of the gentler slopes. Then, as she sped up, something extraordinary happened. Her brother, sister, and friends formed a diamond-shaped moving “barrier” around her, protecting her as she glided down the slope. Catrin was thrilled. I’m free, she thought as she once again felt the wind against her skin and her legs responding to the snow.
Before she slowed to a stop at the bottom, she spotted her father waiting with his arms outspread. Tears were streaming down Carl’s face. Princess One had defeated impossible odds. Carl hugged her, whispering, “You are back, Catrin. You did it!”