Runner recounts being engulfed by fire
Turia Pitt describes the day her life was "destroyed" after she became trapped by fire in a narrow, rocky gorge during an Ultramarathon race.PT0M39S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-1xw94 620 349 May 1, 2012
Turia Pitt wasn't planning to run in the Kimberley Ultramarathon.
The 24-year-old NSW mining engineer thought the $1600 entrance fee was "ridiculous" and figured she would wait for another opportunity.
But just two weeks before the event the keen runner was invited by event organisers to compete for free and decided to sign up for her first ultramarathon in the Kimberley where she lived and worked.
Turia Pitt (left) wasn't even planning to run last year's Kimberley Ultramarathon - which almost took her life and resulted in her suffering shocking burns after being trapped in a bushfire. Photo: Rhianna King
Victorian Kate Sanderson on the other hand, had been planning for the race for almost a year.
An adventure enthusiast and veteran of such events, the 36-year-old had already taken part in 17 similar races, of between 50 and 100 kilometres, all across the country.
The women hadn't met before September 2, 2011, when they joined about 40 other competitors for the start of the much-hyped, government-sponsored marathon across the Kimberley.
Turia Pitt and Kate Sanderson before the Kimberley Ultramarathon.
But yesterday they sat together and held hands – both showing the life-long scars of the ill-fated race - and recounted the day their lives were "destroyed" after they became trapped by fire in a narrow, rocky gorge during the race.
The women bravely listed their horrific injuries and subsequent treatment – so many operations they "have lost count" – which will continue for years to come.
Ms Pitt – wearing a compression suit on her face and body – suffered burns to 64 per cent of her body, and had four fingers from her left hand and her right thumb amputated.
Ms Sanderson also suffered extensive burns, had her left foot amputated, lost part of her earlobes and part of her right index figure.
As they told a parliamentary inquiry yesterday, they had no idea they were running into danger – the race organisers had spoken "in passing" about spot fires but spent more time warning about the risks of snake bite and dehydration.
As Ms Sanderson said, by the time she realised fire was upon them "it was too late."
Ms Sanderson broke down as she told how she heard Ms Pitt screaming, and found herself screaming, after they became engulfed.
"I didn't even look down, I just knew I had been badly burnt," she said.
She said the two and a half hour wait for help was "excruciating" and felt like an eternity.
Ms Pitt said the women would have died at the gorge if not for a risky rescue mission taken by a helicopter.
She also credited the help of fellow competitors Michael Hull and Shaun Van Der Merwe, who also gave evidence yesterday.
During their evidence, it became clear that for these two adventurous, outdoorsy women – life has changed dramatically.
Ms Sanderson said she was now housebound and unable to even tie her shoelaces or turn on taps, and her days consisted of endless doctors' appointments.
"Every week I was outdoors, doing something, but I can't even walk... my life has gone from what it was to nothing," she said.
Ms Pitt visits the physiotherapist five times a week and faces further skin grafts. Her plastic surgeon told the inquiry her prognosis was "extremely poor."
She said she was lucky to have her partner, Michael, who had given up work to care for her.
She said she had been earning good money working for Argyle, but was now broke after she, Michael and her family had spent $20,000 on medical bills.
But the most the victims have received from race organisers Racing The Planet since the fire is a card and an email.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong-based company said yesterday RTP "greatly regretted" the injuries suffered by the competitors, but would not comment on their testimony.
The company has come under extreme criticism during the hearing, and is also now facing potential civil action from the victims.
Yesterday's evidence echoed that from witnesses in recent weeks, painting a picture of a disorganised, "fundamentally flawed" event which was "done on the cheap" without a proper risk management plan in place.
The MPs taking part in the inquiry have expressed astonishment and anger at the management of the race, and are expected to hand down a scathing report in June.
Speaking on behalf of the women outside the hearing yesterday, lawyer Greg Walsh urged RTP to provide some assistance to the victims.
"They certainly will be exploring all their civil remedies," he said.
"They are very concerned, having regard to the fact that they've suffered such horrific injuries, that an organisation such as Racing the Planet be held properly accountable for what occurred."
"This is a humane situation, Racing the Planet over many years has made a lot of money out of organising these events on the basis of helping the community.
"What about showing some compassion to these women?"
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