Story transcripts

The Longest Run

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Ali Smith, Stephen Rice

UPDATE: Full transcript

MICHAEL USHER: Earlier this year we brought you the story of a truly remarkable young woman who despite the most horrific of injuries just refused to give up.

Turia Pitt was trapped in a raging bushfire while competing in an outback marathon. She suffered unimaginable burns but her will to survive and unbelievable optimism inspired many of you, as it did us.

Michael Usher just caught up with Turia again and her boyfriend Michael at the end of a week that's seen amazing highs and lows for them.

A damning report on the race tragedy and, some pretty incredible milestones for Turia.

MICHAEL: Go, Turia, go!

MICHAEL USHER: Turia Pitt is on the road again.

TURIA: It's not fair, you can stand out of your seat.

MICHAEL USHER: Out with boyfriend Michael, the man who's been by her side throughout her recovery from shocking burns.

MICHAEL: Do it again?

TURIA: Maybe we'll just go downhill from now on. It's so nice to see you.

MICHAEL USHER: How are you?

TURIA: I'm good, thank you.

STORY – MICHAEL USHER: Three months since last catching up with them here on the NSW South Coast, there are many milestones to get excited about. Now last time you said you wanted to achieve one thing and that was to be able to touch your face?

TURIA: Yes, and I can do that now, it takes a little bit, but –

MICHAEL USHER: Well done.

TURIA: There we go.

MICHAEL USHER: Huge breakthrough.

TURIA: Very big breakthrough.

MICHAEL USHER: True to form, Turia's achieving more and more quickly than anyone thought possible.

TURIA: Now moving better and better, and I suppose not every day but every month I find I'm able to do more and more things.

MICHAEL USHER: And significantly that breakthrough of just being able to touch your nose.

TURIA: Yeah, I can touch my nose. That was a major breakthrough. To get my shoulders up almost all the way. That's another breakthrough.

MICHAEL USHER: This was Turia when I first met her earlier in the year, barely mobile but with an unbending determination to reclaim her life. How long before you're running and surfing again?

TURIA: I think running, maybe like a couple of months. But surfing, I think that will take a while. Yeah. With their passion for the outdoors, life was good for Michael and Turia, having landed great mining industry jobs in Western Australia's spectacular Kimberley region. And right there, the prospect of a 100 kilometre ultramarathon was, for Turia, a challenge too big to ignore.

TURIA: Yeah, I've always liked fitness, like I've always done stuff. So if someone was to describe me, they'd say, "Oh yeah, Turia, she's really sporty and active. Yeah"

MICHAEL USHER: But as Turia settled into the race, she and several other runners would encounter an enormous wall of fire - too wide and too fast to escape.

TURIA: And I remember just screaming for help. But no-one came. And I realised no-one was coming to help. And I sort of just shut up after that.

MICHAEL USHER: Her burns were devastating, covering almost 70 percent of her body and requiring more than a dozen excruciating surgeries. But, Turia has defied every expectation, thanks to her unshakable resolve and the support of Michael all the way along.

MICHAEL: I thought, if she can walk in agony, and do all the physio that they're asking her, I can be there all the time. That's easy for me.

MICHAEL USHER: While Turia and Michael have been focusing on her recuperation, in Western Australia, the State Parliament has been investigating why and how this tragedy occurred.

MINISTER: Racing the Planet was aware of fires on and in the vicinity of the course prior to and on the day of the event.

MICHAEL USHER: The findings released on Thursday are damning of organisers Racing the Planet. The inquiry found they did not take the right steps to protect your safety - does that make you mad?

TURIA: Racing the Planet should have rung the fire authorities who would have told them not to hold the race and then they didn't. So all it would have taken would be a phone call which they didn't make. So I guess when I think about that stuff, it gets me sort of upset, but I try not to worry about it.

MICHAEL: It makes my blood boil. When you read it, it's pretty straightforward.

MICHAEL USHER: The fact is it will be a long legal fight to determine liability and compensation. But for now, Turia is doing what she does best - achieving great things. Last week, she competed in Sydney's testing City to Surf run. A challenge even for the fit and healthy.

TURIA: That was really good. Probably the first time that I felt really grateful to be alive. So while I was walking, I just thought, oh this is so great. And it just really reaffirmed to me how lucky I am.

MICHAEL USHER: But for all the triumphs, there is no doubt there are tough times too.

MICHAEL: We're not putting on a fake face here to say it's all smiles and happy days. There is probably one dark day in every week, you know?

MICHAEL USHER: How do you get through that?

MICHAEL: It's hard. It's terrible. It's a terrible day. But you just – I don't know, we'll do little things and down the beach or something. You just get over it, you just push on past it. You got to pedal as well.

TURIA: No.

MICHAEL USHER: However, Michael and Turia are very much in love and very much a team. This is a road they're travelling together, even as Turia gets her independence back.

MICHAEL: She's a warrior, isn't she? Well done. She's starting to socialise a lot more and life is getting back on track.

TURIA: Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: Feels like that?

Slowly, yeah.

TURIA: Slowly. We don't spend all day together anymore. Which I miss.

MICHAEL USHER: Michael?

TURIA: He doesn't miss it.

MICHAEL USHER: You're bantering like an old married couple.

Read the webchat transcript

Story contacts:

Sydney Burns Foundation

If you would like to help burn victims you can download the Concord Burns Unit Donation Form:
www.sswahs.nsw.gov.au

Or contribute to Turia's Making a Difference fund
makingadifference.gofundraise.com.au

ORIGINAL STORY:

Watch the original video here

You can't help but be inspired by the young woman you're about to meet.

Quite simply, it's amazing Turia Pitt is even alive today.

Eight months ago, she was caught in a bushfire while competing in an ultra-marathon race through the Kimberley.

She and another competitor, Kate Sanderson, suffered terrible burns.

Doctors warned Turia probably wouldn't make it. But the dogged, fighting spirit of this long distance runner pulled her back from the brink.

That and the love of a remarkable young man.

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: You’re doing really well. You’re moving well, you feeling good about that?

TURIA: Yeah. I just want to start running again, though.

MICHAEL USHER: That Turia Pitt is alive – let alone walking beside me – is quite unbelievable. Every cautious step is an act of courage.

TURIA: OK.

MICHAEL USHER: Well done.

TURIA: Cool.

MICHAEL USHER: That’s an achievement in itself, right?

TURIA: Yeah it is. I’m looking to the next step – do you know what I mean? I’m looking to run and I want to surf again.

MICHAEL USHER: How long before you’re running and surfing again?

TURIA: I think running, maybe a couple of months, but surfing – I think that will take a while, yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: Turia’s optimism is remarkable, given the past eight months of hell. She was burned beyond belief in a Kimberly bushfire. Even her own doctor doubted she’d live.

PETER: I’ve not had a patient with such deep burns survive, not ever. Ever.

MICHAEL USHER: Turia suffered almost 70 percent burns, spent two weeks in a coma and had more than a dozen excruciating surgeries, including multiple skin grafts using donated skin flown all the way from America. But this more than just a remarkable story of survival.

TURIA: I know it’s hard to say I’m lucky, but I am lucky because the situation could’ve been a whole lot worse.

MICHAEL USHER: It’s also an extraordinary love story.

MICHAEL: I thought about it and I thought, “if she can walk in agony, you know and do all the physio that they’re asking her, I can be there all the time” – that’s easy for me.

MICHAEL USHER: 24-year-old Turia Pitt and her boyfriend Michael Hoskin met at high school on the New South Wales South Coast. She modelled part-time, but had the brains to match her beauty. Turia graduated as an engineer and she and Michael landed mining jobs in Western Australia’s Kimberly. Good jobs, a great life and then for super-fit Turia, an amazing challenge. In September last year, she entered the Kimberly Ultramarathon.

TURIA: Yeah, I’ve always liked fitness, like, I’ve always done stuff. So, if someone was to describe me they’d say, “oh yeah, Turia’s really sporty and active.” Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: It was a 100-kilometre, gruelling outback odyssey. Turia was ahead of the pack and completely unaware she was running directly into the path of a raging bushfire.

TURIA: I think I might have been listening to an iPod at the time, and I remember hearing this noise and I thought we must have been close to the highway. I thought it was trucks going past, but it was actually the fire.

MICHAEL USHER: It was that loud?

TURIA: Oh, like you wouldn’t believe. It was so loud.

MICHAEL USHER: It’s an enormous wall of fire – too wide and too fast to escape. Melbourne runner Kate Sanderson is right behind Turia – and stops dead in her tracks.

KATE: I couldn’t call out to her and plus, the roar of the fire I knew she wouldn’t hear. And I thought, “my God, she’s going into the fire”.

MICHAEL USHER: Turia turns at the last second – and with four others, runs for her life.

TURIA: We sort of ran up the hill which I found out later was a bad idea, because the fire gets faster as it goes uphill.

KATE: And then I looked back and the fire was just blazing up the hill. Then just put my hands up to my face and the fire just hit and it just set my shoulder alight. So without thinking I just stood up just to get to it and then the fire just came round me, I just knew I was going to die. Yeah, I just knew.

TURIA: And I remember just screaming for help. But no-one came. And then I realised that no-one was coming to help and I sort of just shut up after that, yeah

MICHAEL USHER: It’s remote, the runners have no communication, no medicine.

KATE: There was one point after a few hours that I just sort of said, “when is someone gonna come? This is so painful.” We were getting sunburnt on our burns. TURIA: Some of the guys had had some Panadol, so they gave me and Kate some Panadol each.

MICHAEL USHER: But just Panadol, that’s it?

TURIA: Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: More than four hours after being caught in the fire, Turia and Kate are finally on their way to safety – but they’re in shock and unaware just how burned they are.

TURIA: At the time I thought, “oh I’m just going to get patched up at Kununurra Hospital and then I’ll be off to work on Monday.”

MICHAEL USHER: The two women are initially taken to Darwin, where Turia’s boyfriend Michael is still unaware of what’s happened – until he gets the worst kind of phone call.

MICHAEL: They just said “It’s serious, you know. She’s critically ill, burns to 60% of her body and yeah, it’s just hard, you know. I didn’t go and see her in the theatre there. I just thought, “That’s it, you know. If she goes, the last time I’ll remember her is happy and beautiful, not burnt and wrapped up and swollen and not talking to me.”

MICHAEL USHER: It was heart-wrenching also for Turia’s mum, Celestine.

CELESTINE: And I saw her and I couldn’t speak, so I just sang. I sang a song in Tahitian.

MICHAEL USHER: What does that mean?

CELESTINE: Dear Lord, have pity on me, on us.

MICHAEL USHER: While Kate is flown to Melbourne to be closer to her family, Turia is airlifted to Sydney’s Concord Hospital. Standing by is burns specialist Professor Peter Haertsch.

PETER: This was as severe an injury that I’d seen. She was literally cooked.

MICHAEL USHER: Did you have enough skin for Turia?

PETER: No, we didn’t have enough skin. I had to then go to America to get the skin –

MICHAEL USHER: You had to get it out of America?

PETER: I had no option, our back was to the wall. This wasn’t just skin deep, this was almost down to bone in a lot of places.

MICHAEL USHER: Michael was there day and night, as doctors fought to save Turia.

MICHAEL: That was sickening going into those meetings. It’s like you’re going into a meeting with doctors about the girl that you love. You’re just going, “how did this happen?”

MICHAEL USHER: Did you have to make decisions for Turia?

MICHAEL: Yeah, I had to sign a form for her on her right hand to amputate four of her fingers to her middle joint, her knuckle. And I was just signing the form, thinking “how is this happening?” But then I thought, “well, she’ll live with it, she’ll accept it.”

MICHAEL USHER: Beneath the mask and the bandages, this once-fit, marathon runner was fighting back against all the odds. Michael and Turia’s mum began recording her recovery…

MICHAEL: How’s the mask feel?

TURIA: Better.

MICHAEL: Better, hey?

MICHAEL USHER: …and part of that is wearing a mask and compression bandages 23 hours a day for two years.

TURIA: They fixed my lip. They grafted my bottom, my calf, my elbow, my breast.

MICHAEL USHER: So this is where the hard work happens?

TURIA: Yeah, this is where the hard work happens.

MICHAEL USHER: It’s been a gruelling six months of learning everything all over again. And through it all, every day, Michael is by her side.

MICHAEL: You know, “this is my job now. I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to get up early.” If she can – I thought about it and I thought, “if she can walk in agony, you know – and do all the physio that they’re asking her, I can be there in the morning and give her breakfast and be there all the time. That’s easy for me.”

MICHAEL USHER: Weeks stretch into months. This is one very determined trio.

CELESTINE: You know how we call each other? The Three Amigos. It says it all.

MICHAEL USHER: That’s a great way to describe it. The support, the love, her own unbelievable determination – are all paying off. Well ahead of what anyone predicted, Turia is back at home – on the New South Wales South Coast.

TURIA: So it was a little bit overwhelming. But now I love it, it’s so good being at home and you know, sometimes at night before I go to sleep I just think, you know, the things I used to take for granted before like sleeping next to Michael. I cried the first night actually.

MICHAEL USHER: Did you really?

TURIA: Yeah, because I was so happy.

MICHAEL USHER: And just like she told me she would, Turia is now running again.

TURIA: It’s difficult, but it’s not going to be forever. And one day I will be able to move around really well and I’ll probably be jogging past you on the street, saying, “hi Michael!”

MICHAEL USHER: Do you worry that your appearances have changed?

TURIA: I know they’ve changed. But I don’t care so much about my appearance. I just want to be functioning again, I just want to be able to touch my face and those types of things. My looks and that – that will come back. I just want to be like you, like normal – yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: I’m not normal.

TURIA: Sorry, bad example.

MICHAEL USHER: In Melbourne, Kate Sanderson is also back at home after months in the Royal Alfred Hospital. She has burns to more than 60% of her body and has battled bad infections.

KATE: It is devastating. This is my camera.

MICHAEL USHER: You’re kidding? A was receiving from police recently, her charred belongings.

KATE: That was the hat I was wearing. This is the backpack I bought the week before.

MICHAEL USHER: The really incredible thing is I can smell the bushfire on it.

KATE: Yeah, I remember the smell, yeah – it was upsetting.

MICHAEL USHER: Does it help having these back or did it kind of hurt when you see them?

KATE: It just hit home, you know, that the fire was pretty hot and did a lot of damage.

MICHAEL USHER: Damage that wouldn’t have been done if race organisers heeded warnings that it was too dangerous to go ahead. This week, both runners gave evidence to the Western Australian parliamentary inquiry into the tragedy. RacingThePlanet’s owner, Mary Gadams also appeared – although reluctantly. She’s repeatedly refused our requests for an interview. Kate and Turia are considering legal action against RacingThePlanet – but they’re determined not to look back with bitterness.

TURIA: You can’t take it back. I can get angry at them that they didn’t cancel the race, that they didn’t have warnings, that they didn’t get their helicopter and come rescue us. But you can’t change the past – what’s happened has happened.

MICHAEL USHER: With her focus firmly on the future, Turia still has one big decision to make.

TURIA: They’re gonna make me a new nose, that type of thing.

MICHAEL USHER: You’re gonna get a new nose, are you?

TURIA: I don’t know which one I’m gonna get yet.

MICHAEL USHER: Whose do you like?

TURIA: I like Angelina Jolie’s. Her nose is nice.

MICHAEL USHER: New nose or not, it’s enough for the moment that she’s alive and with the man she loves. Are you excited about the future?

TURIA: Yeah, I actually am. When Michael talked like about where we’ll live and going back to work and those type of things and yeah, it gets me, gets me keen to get back into the real world. Yeah.

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