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NEARLY SIX YEARS ON FROM THE BUSHFIRE THAT CHANGED HER LIFE, TURIA PITT CON­TIN­UES TO THRIVE THANKS TO A NEW MEM­OIR AND MILE­STONE BIRTH­DAY

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JOHN FOTIADIS Styling SARAH FARRELL Words ANGELA MOLLARD

As she re­leases her new mem­oir, burns sur­vivor Turia Pitt looks ahead to turn­ing 30 and start­ing a fam­ily.

“I WAS CRY­ING AS I TRIED TO CLAM­BER UP THE SLOPE… I RE­MEM­BER THINK­ING, ‘THIS IS HOW I’M GO­ING TO DIE. IT’S SO UN­FAIR’”

Turia Pitt calls it sim­ply “the fire” – the hor­ri­fy­ing day that di­vided her life into “be­fore” and “after”. Much as she’d like to put it be­hind her, it’s an in­trin­sic part of who she is. Telling her story, she says, is like watch­ing a hor­ror movie. It gets less scary ev­ery time you see it.

She wasn’t go­ing to take part in the ul­tra­ma­rathon, a 100km run through Western Aus­tralia’s Kim­ber­ley re­gion, in Septem­ber 2011. Not be­cause she didn’t think she could man­age it – she’s the sort of girl who’s al­ways bit­ten off huge chunks of life – but be­cause it cost $1500 and she and her boyfriend Michael Hoskin were sav­ing for a hol­i­day.

But the or­gan­is­ers wanted some lo­cals in the race and Pitt, a 24-year-old en­gi­neer at a nearby di­a­mond mine, clearly brought both guts and glam­our. When they said they’d waive the fee she agreed in an in­stant.

Pitt had been run­ning for 19 kilo­me­tres and had just passed the sec­ond check­point when she headed down into the Tier Gorge. Re­mov­ing her ear­phones to ex­change pleas­antries with a cou­ple of fel­low com­peti­tors, she heard a roar­ing noise in the dis­tance and thought it must be trucks on the high­way.

With shoul­der-high desert grass on ei­ther side of the track and with her ear­phones back in, Pitt con­tin­ued down­wards, un­aware of the grass fire snaking up the val­ley floor to her right. Run­ners be­hind her had spot­ted the dan­ger and could see that the slim young woman, run­ning with her eyes down and lis­ten­ing to her ipod, was head­ing straight to­wards it. And then she looked up. “There was a wall of flames ap­proach­ing me and I could hear the rum­bling and feel the heat,” she re­calls.

Pitt sprinted back up the track where she met five oth­ers des­per­ately try­ing to de­cide what to do. The path they’d come down was shrouded in smoke, and while she knew she couldn’t out­run the fire, the only other op­tion was to re­main where she was and be en­gulfed by the blaze.

“I could see a rocky out­crop up the hill and hoped there’d be a crevasse or a de­pres­sion I could hide in,” she says. “I was cry­ing as I tried to clam­ber up the slope, know­ing it was life or death. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘This is how I’m go­ing to die. It’s so un­fair. I’m not go­ing to see Michael again.’”

As she felt the flames lick­ing at her feet and the heat melt­ing her

skin, Pitt pulled a long-sleeved shirt from her back­pack, cov­ered her legs and curled into a ball. But the heat was too much. She couldn’t breathe. She stood up and tried to scram­ble fur­ther up the hill but the fire caught her. “I re­mem­ber look­ing down and see­ing my hands and arms ablaze,” she re­calls. As pain ripped through her body she could hear screams that sounded like a wild an­i­mal. “Then I re­alised it was me,” she says. And with that, the fire had passed.

Pitt didn’t know it, but the fire had burned so deep into her skin it had cau­terised her nerve end­ings. She doesn’t re­mem­ber much about the next few hours as un­in­jured run­ners raced round try­ing to make her com­fort­able, but re­calls a lo­cal am­bu­lance of­fi­cer, who she knew, ar­riv­ing at the scene.

“Hi Bonny,” Pitt said to her, but there was no recog­ni­tion. “It’s me. Turia,” she added, and when her friend be­gan to cry Pitt re­alised she must have been badly burnt. “Mate,” she re­mem­bers think­ing, “maybe this is worse than you think.”

It was worse than any­one could have imag­ined. With burns to 65 per cent of her body, in­clud­ing her face, neck, arms, hands, legs and some of her torso, a sur­geon later com­mented that she’d been “lit­er­ally cooked” down to the bone.

Five and a half years later, Pitt only be­comes emo­tional when she thinks of how trau­matic it must have been for those she loves. “It would have been so hor­ri­ble for my mum to think that her daugh­ter might not live. Michael, too. He wasn’t imag­in­ing it – it hap­pened.”

AS SHE BOUNCES on a mini tram­po­line for Stel­lar’s photo shoot, it seems as if Pitt is pro­pelled by an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­bi­na­tion of med­i­cal prow­ess, good for­tune and an in­domitable spirit. When she speaks, the scars, the melted skin, the hor­ror of that day seem to fade away and what’s left is a woman full of such in­sight and pur­pose that you see why she doesn’t want “the fire” to de­fine her. “Do you know,” she says, “that you’re the av­er­age of the five peo­ple you spend the most time with? If you sur­round your­self with whingers, that de­ter­mines what you’ll be. I’m lucky I’ve got go-get­ters around me – Mum, Michael…”

Pitt’s story is as much about love as it is about sur­vival. While her for­ti­tude has cap­ti­vated the na­tion, Hoskin’s de­vo­tion and loy­alty has claimed our hearts. For nearly six years – and two be­fore the fire – he’s been by her side, chang­ing ban­dages, un­screw­ing jars and telling her it’s up to her whether she en­ters an Iron­man event or not.

“Oh, ev­ery­one loves Michael,” Pitt sighs with faux an­noy­ance when his name is raised. And she adores him, too, chron­i­cling how he had to do ev­ery­thing for her from ty­ing her shoelaces to scratch­ing her itch­ing skin. “I was too reliant on him – I was like a lit­tle kid want­ing Mum tot do ev­ery­thing – so I had to learn tot be in­de­pen­dent. Now I’m re­ally st stoked at be­ing back to boyfriend and girlfriend,gi not patient and carer.”

Hoskin’s chap­ter is her favo favourite in her new mem­oir, Un­masked. W While Pitt tells most of the story, key fig­ures­figur – such as her mum, dad, Michael and oth­ers caught in the fire – also re­flect on their mem­o­ries, giv­ing the book both­bot depth and var­ied per­spec­tives. “I crie cried read­ing Michael’s chap­ter be­cause­beca he doesn’t talk that much. I talk a lot, so peo­ple know if I’m hav­ing a bad day, but Michael keeps his feel­ings to h him­self.”

One of the most touch­ing el el­e­ments of the cou­ple’s story is Hoskin’s de­ci­sion to buy an en­gage­ment ring for his girlfriend as she lay fight­ing fo for her life in Syd­ney’s Con­cord Hos­pi­tal. He had seen one he liked in a jew­ellery store linked to the mine where Pitt w worked, so he ar­ranged to buy it and se­cretl­yse gave it to his dad. He didn’t tell any­one else in case she didn’t make it.

Four years later, in the Mald Mal­dives, Hoskin asked Pitt to marry him him, pre­sent­ing her with the ring h he’d kept through all the years of pain, surg­eries and re­build­ing of con­fi­den con­fi­dence. She’s of­ten asked if sh she ever wor­ried he would leav leave her. She wasn’t. As shesh says: “Peo­ple tell me I’m

so lucky tot have

“I WAS TOO RELIANT ON MICHAEL … NOW WE’RE BACK TO BE­ING BOYFRIEND AND GIRLFRIEND, NOT PATIENT AND CARER”

Michael – but I’m pretty awe­some. I didn’t at­tract him be­cause I was lucky, but be­cause I’ve got a lot of qual­i­ties he likes and re­spects and is at­tracted to.”

She’s quiet for a sec­ond. “Michael is bloody lovely, but [part of me] won­ders if I had looked after him, would peo­ple be as in­ter­ested? If I’d walked away, I would have been cold-hearted, but if he had, it would’ve been un­der­stand­able.”

Hav­ing given up work to care for his girlfriend, Hoskin is now a builder and in the process of get­ting his he­li­copter li­cence. Pitt says she’s too busy plan­ning her 30th birth­day in July to think about a wed­ding, but they’re keen to start a fam­ily. She says she’ll bring up her kids ac­cord­ing to her dad’s two rules: 1) no whinge­ing; and 2) no bloody whinge­ing.

“That’s the rea­son I’m so re­silient,” she says. “Kids need a bit of tough­ness to be­come men­tally strong. I’ll be the dis­ci­plinar­ian and Michael will be the favourite par­ent. We’ll be a great team.”

After spend­ing the past few years chal­leng­ing her­self with two Iron­man an events, walk­ing the Kokoda Trail, be­ingng a mo­ti­va­tional speaker, work­ing withh the re­con­struc­tive surgery char­ity In­ter­plast rplast and cre­at­ing her goal-set­ting ini­tia­tive tive School of Cham­pi­ons, Pitt in­tends to de­vote more time to loved ones. “Doin­go­ing an Iron­man was my goal from those early days in hos­pi­tal, but they’re y’re re­ally self­ish. The last few years have e been about me, so I want this year to be about be­ing a bet­ter part­ner, a nicer r hu­man be­ing, bet­ter daugh­ter and friend.”iend.”

As she pre­pares for an­other her surgery – this time on her nose – you u have to won­der if she ever has bad days.

“Of course. I go through h dark times. But ev­ery­one has bad days. s. You can let ex­pe­ri­ences destroy you or r mould you. I choose to let them mould ld me.”

“I GO THROUGH DARK TIMES. YOU CAN LET EX­PE­RI­ENCES DESTROY YOU OR MOULD D YOU. I CHOOSE TO LET THEM MOULD ME” E”

TURIA WEARS Alexan­der Wang jacket and Ba­len­ci­aga shoes (both worn through­out), har­rolds.com.au; P.E Na­tion leg­gings (worn through­out), the­iconic.com. au; (op­po­site) Kenzo dress, har­rolds.com.au; The Up­side top, the­iconic.com.au

TURIA WEARS Ba­len­ci­aga jacket and pants, har­rolds.com.au; Stella Mc­cart­ney crop top, the­iconic.com.au

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