‘Imagine 1,000 wasp stings’: An acid attack survivor’s story
Briton Katie Gee's life changed forever in a violent, excruciating moment while on holiday with a friend in Zanzibar
In the summer of 2013 Katie Gee and her friend Kirstie Trup spent the holidays volunteering in a primary school in StoneTown, Zanzibar. Katie had called her mother Nicola to ask for money for further travelling before returning home, so when the phone rang again, Nicola thought her daughter had forgotten something.
Instead, she received the message no parent wants to hear: on the other end of the line, more than 6,400km away, a young man, who introduced himself as Sam, explained that her daughter had been violently attacked.
Katie and Kirstie had been splattered with battery acid in a seemingly random attack by two men on a motorbike, who slowed down next to them as they turned into a side street. “In the split second it took me to look up and see two men, the liquid was already flying towards me,” Katie recalls, describing the searing pain that instantly began to overwhelm her as the corrosive liquid splashed across the right side of her face and body.
“I was in agony, burning everywhere. Imagine a 1,000 wasp stings all over your body. I knew something terrible had happened.”
The injured girls fled in different directions – Kirstie fell and was helped to the seafront, while Katie (who was standing closer to the attackers and had taken the brunt of the acid) ran to a restaurant, where she managed to find her way to customer showers, and stood under the cold water as her skin began to blister and her clothes disintegrated. Her screams were overheard by two tourists, Sam and his girlfriend Nadine. “Somehow they got us into a car and we sped to the local hospital. I was in such profound shock, I couldn’t even speak.”
The tiny island hospital was chaotic and quickly ran out of saline solution to treat the girls, so they headed to a nearby hotel, where they took a room and stood under the showers for more than two hours, terrified and in agony.
The next day, they were on a plane to the mainland, then another home to London. “I’ll never forget seeing Mum’s face when a doctor pushed my wheelchair across the runway towards her. I knew she was trying to be strong for me, but I could see her agony.”
Both were admitted to the specialist burns unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for treatment. But though Kirstie (whose injuries were less extensive) was allowed to go home soon, for Katie it was the start of a long and painful road to recovery that is ongoing, five years after the attack.
She had burns all over her right side, and her ear was so badly damaged it had to be removed. While all her friends left London for university or on gap years, Katie spent two months in hospital having skin grafts that left her body “like a patchwork quilt”. To date, she has endured more than 60 operations and is still coping with the psychological and physical scars.
At the time, the story of this brutal attack sent shivers down the spines of middle-class British parents with children on gap years.
Acid attacks are by no means a “new” crime – vitriolage, as it was once known, was fairly common in Victorian times, mostly by women against women, and widely reported as a “crime of passion”. Until fairly recently there were isolated incidents, but in the five years that have passed since Katie’s attack, assaults involving corrosive substances have more than doubled in the UK. In a relatively short time acid attacks have become part of the fabric of violent crime in that country.
According to police figures there were 228 such incidents recorded in Britain in 2012, rising to 601 in 2016, while 2017 was the worst year so far, with 950 acid attacks. Just this month a woman in Edinburgh opened her front door and had a corrosive substance thrown at her, causing severe burns to her face.
In 2017 the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead investigator on corrosive attacks, Rachel Kearton, said that while London had the highest number of these incidents, this was a national problem “from Northumberland to Cornwall”.
“The motivations are all different – hate crime, domestic violence, robbery,” she said. Now, the UK has the highest reported number of acid attacks per capita in the world. Globally, the majority of acid-attack victims (about 80%) are women, the assaults often at the bidding of a vengeful man. TV presenter Katie Piper was targeted in 2008 by a man taking orders from her jealous ex Daniel Lynch, who is serving a life sentence. But two-thirds of acid attacks in the UK are on men.
Criminologists tend to believe a rise in gang crime is behind the spike, as young men caught up in urban gangs swap guns and knives for corrosive substances, which can be bought online more easily, using the liquids if a business deal goes wrong, or when someone owes money. Possession is harder to monitor because the weapons can be in the form of domestic cleaning products. But the effect of the attacks on victims is devastating. As one criminologist put it: “Instant torture in a bottle.”
When she was home secretary, Amber Rudd had plans to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under-18s. The policy would have brought acid in line with the law on the possession of knives in a public place. Anyone caught could be imprisoned for up to four years. She told the 2017 Tory party conference: “Acid attacks are absolutely revolting. You have all seen the pictures of victims that never fully recover. Endless surgeries. Lives ruined. We are going to stop people carrying acid in public if they don’t have good reason.”
Some progress has been made. It is now an offence to possess sulphuric acid above a concentration level of 15% without a licence. Retailers Wickes, B&Q and Tesco are among those that have signed up to voluntary measures aimed at curbing the number of attacks, banning under-18s from buying products that contain sulphuric acid, such as drain unblockers; those containing hydrochloric acid (10% concentrations and over), such as patio cleaners; or ones containing sodium hydroxide (12% and over), such as paint strippers.
Meanwhile, police and emergency workers in London have been provided with acid-crime response kits – patrol cars have been supplied with five-litre bottles of water to give victims vital immediate treatment on the scene, while response officers have been equipped with protection gear. Though, as one consultant tells us, it is members of the public who have to be first responders to an attack more often than not.
“These are the people who actually make the difference,” says Dr Jorge Leon-Villapalos, a consultant in burns and plastic surgery. “Washing these injuries quickly and copiously with water, and trying to remove the noxious effect of the acid or the corrosive agent on the skin – that makes the definitive change on the effect that the corrosive agent can have later. Water, in addition to providing effective pain relief, has been shown to reduce tissue damage, and reduce the formation of scar tissue long-term.”
The Offensive Weapons Bill, which contains tougher new sentences for violent crime, had been due to complete its remaining stages last month, but was postponed at the last minute. Meanwhile, research carried out for Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) in early 2018 revealed the wider cost of the spike in attacks to the UK taxpayer.
In 2017 alone, ASTI estimated, taxpayers shouldered about £60m of the financial burden that the rise in assaults using corrosive liquids brings with it. “There is an obvious moral case for intervention, but these figures show that the costs associated with acid attacks are astronomical,” said ASTI executive director Jaf Shah.
It’s nothing, of course, compared with the burden survivors themselves have to endure. Acid causes skin and tissue to melt, leaving victims with permanent disfigurement, medical complications and psychological trauma, not to mention social and economic problems. As Dr Leon-Villapalos tells me, burns care is not a 100m race, “it’s running marathons, several times over, both physically and psychologically”.
Katie and I meet in a restaurant close to London’s Oxford Street on a colossally rainy autumn afternoon. She has nipped out of the office to meet me in her lunch break. Now 23, she started her first job as an assistant surveyor in a commercial property company in September, after a summer spent recovering from her latest major surgery. She can hear clearly out of her newly constructed right ear, which was made from cartilage taken from her rib, and has a piercing in it so she can wear a pair of earrings – a seemingly small thing, but it means a great deal to Katie.
Cradling a coffee, she takes me through some of her most recent operations. The pain, she says, isn’t even a consideration any more. She can cope with that. It’s the end goal that matters. “This was the fourth one I’ve had on my ear because the whole thing was reconstructed,” she explains. “After that surgery I was ill, I was really nauseous and my anxiety was bad, so I haven’t had surgery since because I wanted to give myself a break.”
For the first three years after the attack she had to wear a plastic face mask and full-body compression suit for 23 hours a day to flatten out her scars as they healed. “I couldn’t go out at night for three years. The first years were the hardest. For six months you’re so distracted, you’re so spoilt by everyone around you. But it’s the following two years when your skin is starting to contract and get bumpy that you look the most different, and that’s when you find you really need the most support. All your friends are getting on with their own lives, having fun at uni, getting boyfriends. And I’m in hospital five times a week.”
In the past year Katie has completed a degree in sociology (mainly studying at home), travelled in America and started her new job. Next, she is planning to move in with a friend. She’s also become something of an influencer, using her story to challenge traditional beauty standards via her social-media accounts, and is working as a champion for Changing Faces, a charity offering psychosocial and wellbeing, giving victims the tools to handle other people’s reactions and build up their resilience. Therapy has helped get her where she is today, says Katie, as have her friends and family, and the many doctors who treated her. She still thinks of that day. “If I’m on the Tube, if it’s crowded and making me feel anxious, or if someone is staring, it will bring me back to it. But I don’t think about it as much as I used to.”
As for her attackers, she rarely considers them. “If I ever saw them, I’d probably want to kill them. I still hate them, but don’t really think about them. If I do, it’s more with sadness, like, why are they like that? Not, why did they do this to me?”
Months after the attack, the Tanzanian authorities arrested and released several men in connection with the incident. At the time, local clerics blamed extreme Islamist group Uamsho because the girls were Jewish, though Katie doesn’t think that was behind the attack, as they’d been very careful not to wear religious symbols that might identify them as Jewish. The culprits are yet to be found and charged.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited