Two decades after she was terribly burned in a car fire which killed her sister, Melanie Grimsley, from Fermanagh, tells her inspirational story of recovery in a book written with Ivan Little
It was a fire that stunned Northern Ireland. Just five months after the Enniskillen bomb, tragedy returned to the town with a vengeance. Two little sisters were trapped in their family car as it was turned into a raging inferno. Their mother had popped into a shop to buy milk, leaving them for just a couple of minutes.
Noone knows for sure what started the blaze in April 1988. But one little girl Amanda, who was almost three, was killed. Her sister Melanie, who’d just turned two, was rescued by a brave passer-by but she was left with horrific burns which some doctors said were the worst they’d ever seen.
Now aged 25, Melanie, a remarkable mother-of-two, has co-written a book with journalist Ivan Little about her amazing and inspirational recovery and how doctors re-built her face and hands.
It’s called Beauty for Ashes — The Miracle of Melanie Grimsley and will be launched tonight in Enniskillen and on Monday in Belfast. Today, the Belfast Telegraph publishes abridged excerpts from the book.
Melanie on grieving for her sister ... and her looks
Moral support: Melanie meets Falklands war hero Simon Weston
I was progressing well. My operations were all going according to plan. And academically I was always in the top group of my class. Yes, on the surface everything appeared to be going well. But inside I was struggling.
I just felt so different from everyone else. My self-esteem was at rock bottom. I thought I was ugly. And I resented how I looked.
It’s fair to say I hated myself.
One day I was deeply upset as I returned home from school. All the other girls in my class had been cast in the roles of angels in the Nativity play. Me? I was asked to be a Christmas tree.
It transpired the reason why they wanted me play the part was because it was a speaking role and I was a clear speaker. I thought it was because I wasn’t pretty enough to be an angel like the other girls. My Mum told me she would make the most beautiful Christmas tree outfit anyone had ever seen. But that didn’t pacify me. I was just too hurt and it’s all a telling reminder of how I felt about myself. Never good enough. Never up there with everyone else.
My heartache was compounded by the fact that I still missed Amanda. After the accident, Mum had two more daughters Elaine and Bethany. And although I love them dearly there was still a gap in my life.
Obviously I was too young to have vivid memories of Amanda as she was. But still there was something missing. I also had to live with the fact that I’d escaped from the car. But Amanda didn’t and she died. And looking back on that now, I realise that even as a child I felt guilty. Survivor guilt, I think they call it now.
I can clearly remember at the age of five or six I cried myself to sleep every night. During the day I kept my thoughts in check. But there was something about the dark quietness of the night that let them flow openly.
I kept my demons to myself. I never talked about them to anyone; I didn’t want to burden anyone, especially my parents. I could see how upset I made them. I wanted to do well. I wanted to cope with everything. I wanted to make my parents proud of me.
Everyone told me how brave I was. And I didn’t want to disappoint. But I never believed I was brave. I didn’t have a choice. And that started to frustrate me.
Behind my outward show of resilience and determination, a host of things were troubling. I knew how different my face was. But I never said a word.
I would look at other people — ‘normal’ people — and wish that I could be like them. My hatred intensified — for me, for how I was, for having to go to hospital, for the way my immensely-missed sister had been taken from my life.
The more I grew angry and bitter, the more questions raged through my head. Why me? Why I had been treated so unjustly? Why was everyone else ok and happy when I wasn’t? Why couldn’t things have been different?
Melanie on coping with cruel comments
As a teenager on my very first day in a chemist’s shop where I was working, a woman came up to the till and asked another assistant — not in a whisper — “What happened to her?”
Another woman jumped as I asked her if she needed any help and she said “Oh, my God. I thought you were wearing a mask”.
Her friends were as mortified as I was.
I don’t know if people mean to be rude or if they’re just lacking in knowledge.
But it really frustrates me that they even think they’ve a right to make any comment at all.
I know I would never go up to anyone and ask them to tell me the worst thing that had ever happened to them.
Yet some people assume they have a right to know whatever they want when they see there is something different about me.
Believe it or not, a man once approached me in Tesco when I was doing my grocery shopping and out of the blue asked me if I had been in the Omagh bomb which killed 29 people and unborn twins in August, 1998.
I told him that I wasn’t. But, astonishingly, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Are you sure you weren’t?” he asked “You look like you were.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised as the insensitivity of some people never ceases to amaze me.
Melanie on finding love and happiness
It was only after six months of phone calls and text messages that Brian and I actually met face to face. I felt I’d known him for ever and we’d become firm friends over the phone but nerves always stopped us from taking the next step.
I’d told Brian about my burns and I was afraid it would put him off wanting to get to know me better. But that wasn’t the case.
And I was glad I plucked up enough courage to go through with that meeting. And for once, I ignored my worries and stopped listening to the doubts going around in my head. And I took a chance. Brian had told me my burns didn’t matter but I found that hard to believe.
We arranged to meet near Enniskillen Castle beside Lough Erne. And our first meeting after school proved me wrong about Brian and his attitude to my burns. For he really did see me for who I was.
And it wasn’t long before we were meeting up every week. But one of the biggest hurdles lying ahead for me in my relationship with Brian was to let him see me without my hair. I’d no choice but to let him see my face. But my hair was a different story, altogether. However after he saw him me he said: “It was a shock at first but then I saw it was my Melly who I cherish no matter what she looks like. My opinions haven’t changed at all. I still love you as much as I did 10 minutes ago.”
Melanie married Brian Higgins in 2005 and they have two sons, William (3) and Leo (2).
Melanie’s dad William on his premonition of tragedy
After Pam and Melanie went out the front door Amanda suddenly came running down the hall to give me a kiss and she said goodbye and hugged me.
“Normally I sang and whistled as I cut the grass but I went quiet and even my next door neighbour Sally commented on that. I said to her that something wasn’t right. I’ve never said this before but I had a feeling that the way Amanda said goodbye and hugged me was just different from the way things went in the house.”
Around three o’clock the phone rang. It was from the Erne hospital and a nurse, called Sister Dundas said that Pam and the children were there. She said there was nothing to worry about, that they were okay.
Pam had taken the car so I had no way of getting to the hospital so a friend, Maureen Brimstone offered to drive me there.”
William actually passed his own fire-ravaged and still-smouldering car but didn’t recognise it.
I said to Maureen “look at that car, that’s wild” but I didn’t have a clue it was my own.
Sister Dundas met me in the hospital. She said there’d been an accident and told me Pam and Melanie were there. But she didn’t mention Amanda.
She said that there’d been a fire and in that instant I realised.
I think that what happened in the house that morning with Amanda had prepared me. I sort of knew.
The nurse asked me if I wasn’t going to inquire about Amanda but I said I didn’t have to. She then told me Amanda was dead.
Oliver Quinn on how he rescued little Melanie
I was in the shop for just a couple of minutes when a girl came in and shouted there was a car on fire and there were two children inside.
I ran down and saw the shadow of someone moving in the car so I pulled the driver’s door open. I saw this young girl cowering over in the corner at the passenger’s window. Whether she was trying to get out or looking for someone I don’t know. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a horrible sight.
She was just cuddled up. There seemed to be smoke or flames coming out of her hair and her clothes.
I just rushed in and got a hold of her by the back of the neck and pulled her out across the seat.
I handed her over to a man who tried to put the flames out of her by rolling her on the grass. She was then driven away to the Erne Hospital.
But initially I hadn’t realised there were two children in the car. However after hearing people shouting about another youngster inside, I went back but there was no way I could get in by the driver’s side.
I went round to the back door but the handle was so hot it was like putting your hand into an oven. I got burnt but I didn’t even think about it. However it was hopeless. I couldn’t do anything. I knew that if there was anybody on the back seat, there was no way they were still alive.”
(Melanie and her husband named their second son Leo Oliver Higgins after her rescuer).
Beauty For Ashes, by Ivan Little and Melanie Grimsley, Award Publishing, £11.95