Monday, 25 Oct 2021

Palmerston North schoolgirl burns victim hunts for mystery hero woman

An injured schoolgirl wants to meet the mystery woman who stayed with her as she bathed her badly burned legs in a river after falling into searing-hot bonfire ash.

The horrific accident, which happened earlier this year at a public reserve in Palmerston North, has left Katie Brunn, 12, needing multiple trips to the operating theatre and missing the first term of her final year at intermediate.

With damaged skin on her lower left leg now covered in grafts, the plucky youngster hasn’t yet returned to the riverside reserve where she clambered over a mound of logs concealing a fiery danger.

But three months into her recovery she and her mother Pip Brunn are keen to find the stranger who gave vital first aid and helped carry her to the Manawatū River as badly burned skin peeled from her leg.

The grateful mum says she will never forget how the woman suddenly appeared beside her offering to help as her daughter cried out in pain.

“I was trying to be really calm with Katie because she was really beside herself saying, ‘I’m going to die mum’ – that’s how bad it was. On one side of her leg I could see that the skin had come off,” Brunn said.

“The lady came over and as soon as I saw her face she just had that look of calm. She said, ‘Let’s see if we can get you to the river, let’s lift you up’. She didn’t take over she was just calm. I was trying to keep Katie calm and her voice kept me calm.”

She said the pair lifted her badly-injured daughter to the river where they sat beside her.

“It was like it was just me and her and everyone else was invisible at the time,” Brunn said.

“There were lots of people at the beach and she was the only one that came and realised that someone needed to help this kid who was screaming.”

But in the chaos of the moment the mum-of-six says she now cannot remember the woman’s name.

“The first thing I remember her doing was saying ‘Hi, my name is Bronwyn and I’m here to help you’ but I might be completely wrong. I also think she had an older teenager or son with her.”

Meanwhile Katie, who is now preparing to head back to Monrad Intermediate – Te Kura Waenga o Tirohanga this week for the first time this year, wants to give a special message to the good Samaritan who tendedher wounds.

“I probably want to say ‘thank you’,”Katie said.

While she recoils when her mother talks about the accident, Katie clearly remembers the woman helping nurse her through the painful ordeal.

“I was screaming and asking to call for an ambulance and yelling at mum.

“A lady came over to us with a water bottle and she poured it on my legs and she suggested that we take me down to the river.”

Brunn said at the time she was struggling to cope and the woman’s actions were really appreciated.

“If she hadn’t have come I would have just sat there. I said to Katie ‘Can we go to the river?’ and she said, ‘No, I can’t move’. I was trying to think how do I get Katie to the river by myself?

“I felt she was knew what she was doing. She was present without being overwhelming. Some people in a crisis panic and create more drama whereas she just centred it right in, keeping it as low-key as humanely possible, which is something somebody like Katie needed.

“This one lady cared enough to give us her time and help me and be calm. She was just such a calming influence and I thought it was just meant to be. She just did things and may not realise that what she did was something really massive,” Brunn said.

The devoted mum ended up spending a month away from her family while Katie received treatment at a specialist burns unit at Hutt Hospital nearly 150km south of Palmerston North.

The year 8 pupil is continuing to heal from her wounds, which includes skin grafts taken from her thigh and buttock to repair her damaged toes, foot and lower left leg.

Brunn still can’t believe how quickly everything unfolded on a hot summer’s day that was meant to be a fun family outing.

“Katie said, ‘I’m going to climb the sticks’ and we said, ‘yeah, no problem’ and we were talking about how it smells around here.”

The next moment she was screaming in pain, with skin starting to peel from her barelimbs.

“She kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry mum, I’m sorry if I’ve upset my sisters, I’m sorry if I’ve been mean to people, I’m going to go now mum, I’m going to die’. I was just focusing on telling Katie she was okay and she wasn’t going to die. Those are the things that really stick in my head.”

Brunn said the pile of wood had been sitting in place for weeks, and many children had clambered over it during the school holidays. Katie had even played on it the previous day.

“As a careful kid she would not have taken a risk to climb a set of sticks had she known they would be dangerous.”

Brunn said the ordeal had come at great cost to the family. Friends set up a givealittle page to help with lost wages and travel costs to Wellington for ongoing treatment. Just over $3000 had been raised for the family.

A Palmerston North City Council manager said signs had been erected last week at the reserve’s official fire pit cautioning that it could be hot.

However, Katie’s accident happened in fire remnants that people had built and lit at the park outside the sanctioned fire area, and without council permission.

Parks and reserves manager Kathy Dever-Tod said an over-arching sign explaining how people were expected to take care of the park including addressing unauthorised fires had been designed and would be installed this month.

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