The last thing Stefanie Schaffer remembers about her vacation to the Bahamas was a boat ride. She and her family were headed to Exuma for the day. The weather was clear. The vacation had been perfect. And then, their tour boat exploded.
“I can kind of remember the feeling of panic, but I can’t remember anything else,” explained Schaffer.
It would be several weeks before the 22-year-old from Vermont would learn that the June blast killed one person and injured nine others, including herself, who had all signed up for a tour boat excursion with Four C’s Adventures.
Schaffer’s injuries included broken bones and internal bleeding, but the worst damage was to her legs, which had to be amputated.
“I had to be told I lost my legs multiple times before I realized I lost my legs,” Schaffer explained. “It doesn’t feel real. It’s like, how is this my life? Especially when you’re in your 20s and you’ve been healthy for 22 years.”
After spending weeks in a Florida hospital, Schaffer was moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge where she has been undergoing therapy for the last eight weeks.
“The unfairness of it is just really hard,” said her mother, Stacey Bender.
The details of the explosion are more vivid for Bender, who was seated farther away from her daughter. Initially, she thought the speed of the boat had accidentally knocked her off. But as soon as she surfaced in the water, Bender could see flames.
“As I’m going through the air, I started seeing shrapnel going by me,” she explained. “I could see the other people, but I couldn’t see Stef.”
Trapped under debris, Schaffer was the last person to be pulled from the wreckage and brought to shore. With no ambulance in sight, bystanders helped get Schaffer into the bed of a pickup truck, which her mother and a friend then drove to a hospital nearly 30 minutes away. Because of the severity of her injuries, Schaffer was placed in a medically-induced coma. When she awoke, it was the first time she could read about what happened and watch video that witnesses captured of the fire.
“When I saw it the first time and read the first articles it was like, ‘I was on that boat?'” Schaffer asked. “How was I on that boat? Like how am I alive?”
Through intensive care at Spaudling, Schaffer’s condition has been gradually improving since her arrival. Despite battling unforeseen complications from her injuries, she has managed to regain strength and movement.
“At the beginning, it’s just trying to survive,” she said, “And now it’s like you’re realizing the stuff that affects your day-to-day life.”
While she focuses on her recovery, her family is focused on the accident. They have hired an attorney based in Florida to represent them in any future legal action. In a statement, attorney Blake Dolman said the company in charge of the boat was not complying with regulations.
“The vessel in question, operated by one of the most prominent and highly publicized tour boat companies in the Exumas, with the full knowledge of the Bahamian Government, was not registered with Port Department of the Bahamas and had never undertaken a Port Department inspection required under national legislation,” wrote Dolman. “In fact, we have learned that of the eighteen commercial charter boat companies operating from Exuma, only six are registered with the Port department as required by law.”
While Schaffer has said the entire ordeal has left her angry and frustrated at times, she is trying to remain hopeful. Because of her progress, she will be moved to Spaulding’s Charlestown location on Thursday. The goal is to ultimately be fitted for prosthetic legs and learn to walk, again.
“People say, ‘What gets you through this?' And I say, ‘I really have no other choice,’” Schaffer said, “Because I can’t give up because then I’m stuck without moving around. And I don’t want that for myself.”