Stephanie Schaffer, the 22-year-old Rutland woman who lost both legs when a tour boat she was on exploded in the Bahamas, is still in intensive care and doesn’t yet know that she’s lost her legs, her mother told ABC News.
Schaffer was among 12 people on the small tour boat when it exploded off the coast of Exuma July 1, killing a woman and injuring nine others. Schaffer has undergone about 10 surgeries, her mother, Stacey Schaffer Bender, told ABC News on Thursday.
The family picked Exuma for a vacation to take with their friends because the children had seen an Instagram post of pigs swimming in the water there, Bender said. The first few days of the trip, they focused on relaxing, but then decided to go snorkeling and kayaking the day before the accident, Bender said.
‘It was beautiful’ on the day of the explosion
The morning of the boat ride, Bender said her biggest worry was that Schaffer and her other daughter, Brooke, 13, hadn’t eaten breakfast. Once everyone got on board, Schaffer, Bender and Bender’s husband, Paul, chose seats in the front of the boats.
“I’m sure Stephie wanted the spot with the most sun, ’cause that’s her,” Bender said.
There was “no indication at first” that something was wrong with the boat, Bender said. Shortly after taking off, the crew went over the itinerary for the tour, and “all of a sudden,” the boat started traveling “really fast,” she said.
Bender said she felt scared at the time but tried to calm down after looking over at Schaffer, who “isn’t scared of anything,” and then at her husband, who was snapping pictures at the time.
Then, Bender could feel herself being thrown from the boat.
“I’m realizing I’m going through the air, head over heels,” she said. “I think they just threw me off the boat.”
Bender, who was injured, saw metal flying past her.
“I knew everyone was hurt,” she said. “I saw the boat. I could see the flames.”
Video shot from a nearby boat showed panicked tourists jumping into the shallow water in an attempt to rescue passengers. Thick, black smoke poured into the sky as large flames shot from the disabled craft.
When Bender scanned the water looking for family members, she saw Maleka Jackson, the American who died that day, yelling to her, she said. Despite the shallow water, Jackson was saying she couldn’t swim because she couldn’t feel her feet.
Bender then hooked arms with Jackson, who asked for her name before stating, “I hope my husband’s OK,” Bender said. Jackson and her husband had been celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, said Jackson’s father, Malvin Grimes.
Bender then saw that her younger daughter and husband were OK, but there was no sight of Schaffer, who had been trapped on the boat with metal wrapped around her, Bender said.
After a few others helped pull Schaffer off the boat and into a larger vessel that had come to help, Bender finally realized how badly her daughter had been injured.
Medical attention was difficult to obtain
With no ambulance on the way, Jackson, Bender and Schaffer had to rely on a good Samaritan with a truck to get them to a hospital, Bender said. The driver weaved through narrow, windy roads, beeping at other vehicles to let him pass, to get the injured the medical attention they desperately needed.
“It just felt like forever,” Bender said of the ride to the hospital. “It just felt like it went on and on and on, and I could see the panic on the truck driver’s face. He was trying so hard for us.”
Stephanie’s road to recovery
Schaffer has just started to wake up and respond after her 10 surgeries, enduring at least one surgery per day last week, Bender said.
Bender described her daughter as a “quiet, strong type,” the one all of her friends “go to when they need someone to talk to that they can trust.” She had just moved in with friends in her hometown of Rutland, Vermont, to finish her senior year of college, Bender said.
“I would have never wanted this for Stephanie, obviously, of course, but the best we can do is just see where her life goes, and I think wonderful things are still in store for her,” Bender said.
Schaffer’s doctors told Bender that “it’s a miracle” she’s still alive.
Schaffer suffered a compound fracture to her left leg, a compound fracture to her left arm, a fracture to her spine, internal bleeding in her kidney and lungs, and both of her pelvic bones were broken as were several ribs, Bender said.
Bender fractured her lower leg, broke her heel and right wrist in a couple of places, broke a few ribs and suffered internal injuries as well.
“I just really didn’t think about my own pain because my focus was, just, I have to be able to get closer to that bed, and I need to be able to stand up, and I need to be able to touch her,” Bender said.
Bender was discharged from the hospital on Sunday, but Schaffer will require another at least another week and a half in the ICU, three more months in the hospital and six to 12 months of rehabilitation, Bender said.
Schaffer is still heavily sedated in the hospital, and doctors are starting to ween her off her pain medication, sedatives and dialysis as they wait for her kidney function to kick in, Bender said.
“She’s not going to be happy” when she realizes the extent of her injuries, Bender said.
The Schaffer family has set up an online fundraiser to help cover medical expenses.
A nurse who is around the same age as Schaffer said that, during a recent shift change, when visiting hours are closed, Schaffer mouthed two words to her: “Mom” and “phone,” but her phone was lost in the Atlantic Ocean on the day of the accident.
Despite a fever, Schaffer was able to wave goodbye to her mother on Thursday before she left to conduct the interview after her orthopedic surgeon took the splint off of her arm.
“It was awesome,” Bender said of the simple gesture. “It made my life.”