A student who lost both her legs in a fatal boat explosion while on vacation in the Bahamas now happily poses in a bikini a year after the tragic accident.
Stefanie Schaffer, 23, almost died when a tourist boat taking her and her family to see the island’s swimming pigs exploded last June.
Her legs were so badly mangled in the blast, which killed a fellow American traveller, that doctors had no choice but to amputate both limbs just below the knee.
She later had elective surgery to become an above the knee amputee which she hopes will help her walk unaided on prosthetic legs.
Stefanie said: “When I first got hurt, I cried for hours.
“But I realised how hard recovery was and how much effort I was going to have to put into it.
“Instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt proud of myself for being able to put up the fight.
“I never thought I would wear a swimsuit or shorts again but now it really doesn’t bother me.”
Stefanie, of Rutland, Vermont, travelled to the Carribean with her mother Stacey Bender, 51, a former bookkeeper, her step father Paul Bender, 56, an engineer, and her sister, Brooke Shaffer, 14.
On the third day of their trip, they boarded a 40-foot chartered boat, operated by tour company Four C’s Adventures.
Just five minutes into the wildlife tour, off Barraterre island in the Exuma Cays, the boat’s engine exploded.
Stefanie recalled: “We were only on there for about five minutes.
“I don’t remember hearing or seeing anything but the boat exploded right under the seat I was on.”
Mom Stacey was blown out of the boat and into the water, shattering her foot, breaking her wrist and two ribs.
She searched the water for Stefanie and realised her daughter was still on the boat, trapped under debris.
She said: “We hit a wave and I realised I was going out of the boat.
“There was black smoke everywhere.
“I started looking for my family.
“I realised I couldn’t see Stefanie.
“That’s when I started screaming: ‘Where’s Stefanie?’”
The passengers pulled Stefanie off the boat and Stacey was horrified to see her daughter’s injuries.
She said: “She was covered in blood.
“I could see how badly damaged her legs and her arms were.
“I knew it was horrific.”
Stacey said there was no ambulance available and they had to load Stefanie into a pickup truck for the 40-minute drive to a hospital in George Town.
In the ER, doctors told Stacey that they would have to amputate both Stefanie’s legs.
“I couldn’t accept it,” she said.
“But finally I did and I just thought: ‘Please let her live’.
“You never think that something like this could happen to your child.”
Maleka Jackson, 39, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was sitting behind Stefanie on the tour boat.
She passed away at the George Town hospital from the injuries she suffered in the blast.
The mom-of-one had been in the Bahamas celebrating her 15th wedding anniversary with husband Tiran.
Stefanie was airlifted to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where doctors placed her in a medically induced coma for a month.
She had broken 16 bones including her back, arms, wrists and ribs.
Medics estimated that Stefanie had just a 50 per cent chance of survival.
When she woke up in her hospital bed, surrounded by friends and family, Stefanie could not recall having been to the Bahamas.
She said: “I didn’t even remember that we had been to the Bahamas.
“My back was broken and I had lost my legs.
“I had this weird phantom pain where I could still feel that my legs were there.
“It took a long time to sink in that they were actually gone.
“I was very broken at the time.
“I had so many broken bones that I was on an incredible amount of medication and I wasn’t really aware of what was happening.
“I couldn’t really understand reality.
“I cried for a few minutes and that was it.”
Two months later Stefanie was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the reality of her situation began to hit her.
“I was in a pretty bad place,” she said.
“My whole days were consumed with anger.
“All I could think about was: how could this happen to me?
“Through counseling, I came to peace and started just focussing on my recovery and let go of the anger.”
Stefanie was given two prosthetic legs and began physical therapy to learn how to walk again.
She still cannot walk unaided.
“I was so weak from laying in the coma for so long that I had lost the strength to even sit up on my own,” she said.
“I had a spinal cord injury as well.
“When I broke the bone in my spine, some of the pieces of the bone hit my spinal cord and the impact damaged it.
“My doctors weren’t sure if I was going to be able to walk again.
“The first day I couldn’t even stand up.
“I had a harness on.
“Eventually I was able to stand up and I began to walk with a walker.
“I recently was able to walk on crutches but it has been a year now and I still can’t walk on my own without help.
“At times I think my spinal cord injury has been worse than my amputations.
“It doesn’t improve, that has been very frustrating.”
Before the accident, Stefanie worked at a gym and was a keen soccer player.
She is trying to learn how to participate in sports with prosthetics.
She said: “I really miss being able to go hiking and skiing.
“I worked at a gym before I got hurt.
“There are things that you lose, but you gain them back in new ways.
“I’m going to a sports centre where they adapt activities for people who have been injured.
“I’ll use a bike that I push with my hands instead of with my feet.”
Last month, Stefanie opted to have her legs amputated above the knee to help her use prosthetic legs.
She said: “It was a lonely decision to make – nobody who loves you wants to see you lose more of your leg.
“But it got to the point where getting the amputation would cause me less pain than keeping the leg.
“It is important to know that it does get better.
“It’s awful to lose a part of the body that you’ve lived in for however many years.
“It’s okay to grieve the loss of your limbs.
“I grieved for them almost like I would grieve for the loss of a loved one.
“But you start to love your new legs, your prosthetics.
“At first I thought I wanted cosmetic prosthetics, the ones that look like real legs.
“But now having regular ones doesn’t bother me at all.
“I’m happy to wear shorts and dresses and swimsuits.
“I’m proud of my body for surviving.”
Stefanie added that the support she has received on social media from fellow amputees has been invaluable for her recovery.
“A lot of amputees really reach out and they come to meet you and share their perspective.
“Becoming an amputee is like entering a whole new world that you know nothing about.
“You are angry and sad and have all of these feelings.
“Having those people to talk to has helped me a lot.”
Four C’s Adventures owner Clayton Smith and one of his captains Roderick Watson have been charged with manslaughter by negligence after the deadly explosion.
The men will stand trial next year.
The company continues to operate boat tours in the Bahamas.
The Schaffer Bender family are pursuing legal action against Four C’s Adventures and the Bahamas ministry of tourism.
Stacey said: “Stefanie wants someone to admit that there was wrong done to her.
“We feel like maybe it is time to be in touch with our local senators and congressmen here in Vermont.
“If changes aren’t made, there are going to be more of these accidents.”