‘Fire left me with 90% burns and wishing I was dead – but now I’ve found happiness’
Layla Skalli suffered from depression and addiction to painkillers after her horrific injuries but after travelling the world she’s reassessed her life
When a firefighter carried her out of her blazing student flat, intense heat from her injuries penetrated his safety clothing and burnt him too.
The 19-year-old was given a less than 1% chance of survival.
Incredibly Layla did make it, but she wished she had not. Her life-changing injuries led to depression and she became addicted to the painkillers she was taking for crippling pain.
More tragedy was to come when her mother Jackie died of an accidental overdose. Layla, now 26, said: “The fire destroyed me on every level, and then it robbed me of my mum.”
Bu now, nearly seven years on, she is happy to be here and wants others to know hope can always be found.
Layla went on: “I spent years wishing I had not been saved, but I have managed to change how I feel. Three years ago I found the courage to travel the world, to face the world, and that has changed everything.
“On the other side of the globe I uncovered my burns and let people see me. I was accepted and I realised it was possible to enjoy life again.
“I may be scarred, but I am no longer scared. In fact, I’m proud of my scars and how far I’ve come. I would never have had the courage to go travelling on my own before the fire.”
Brave Layla, of North London, said it is still not known how the blaze started in her flatshare in Norwich as she slept on April 14, 2009. But there was no warning as her landlord had not fitted any smoke alarms.
A catering student who planned to join the army, Layla’s future crumbled when she awoke from a coma nine days later.
She said: “The first thing I remember is coming round disorientated and seeing Mum’s face. I had no idea what had happened.”
Jackie, 41, said she had fallen unconscious in heavy smoke. Fire crews smashed through her third-floor window to save her, seconds before the room exploded.
While her housemates escaped unharmed, carbon monoxide levels in Layla’s body were near lethal and she was on the verge of organ failure.
Yet 12 hours on she was still clinging to life, so during a nine-hour operation medics removed her burned skin and planned a “suit” of skin to be grown from her cells and donors. It would be grafted on over coming months.
When she awoke, Layla was unaware of the extent of her injuries.
Her face had been protected by her hands as she fell unconscious, but Layla said: “I wasn’t prepared for the way the rest of my body looked.”
She also had to learn to walk again, and lost count of all her operations. Three months after the fire, she moved in with her parents and Jackie cared for her full-time.
Layla said: “She would get me dressed, change my dressings, she even slept with me as I suffered terrifying nightmares. The pain was constant and only numbed by the strongest painkillers.”
She went on: “I’d wanted to be a soldier, one day a wife and a mother. Now all that seemed impossible. I couldn’t even go out with friends.
“People stared and pointed at me, so I stayed home. Back then, if I’d been given a choice, I would have chosen to die.”
Mum Jackie also suffered depression after the fire. On New Year’s Eve 2009, she accidentally mixed alcohol with her anti-depressants and died in her sleep.
Layla said: “She was my rock and without her I really wished I had died. I was so angry. If it hadn’t been for the fire, Mum wouldn’t have died.”
She moved in with her sister Nadia, 20, who took on her care, helped by dad Hakim, 53, and brother Andrew, 24.
Layla was in the grip of painkiller addiction when she faced her landlord at Norwich crown court in 2010.
He was charged with 14 offences in breach of fire, health and safety laws and made to pay Layla £20,000 compensation. He was jailed for 30 months, later cut to 21.
In January 2013 Layla finally sought help for addiction, and was admitted to a detox centre.
She said: “It was so hard. I had to go through all the pain again, with no cushion.”
But she decided she owed it to her mother to do something with her life, and spent some of her compensation on a flight to America.
She said: “Walking through New York, I finally felt like the brave person everyone said I was. I felt happy for the first time since the fire. I started to see it wasn’t my burns that people had been reacting badly to, it was my negativity.
Therapy: She was treated for her trauma in Australia
“The happier I was, the better people seemed to respond to me. After 10 days I flew home feeling so proud.”
Layla then bought flights to Australia and booked into a clinic for post-traumatic stress treatment in Byron Bay.
She said: “I realised I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was alive and starting to enjoy that feeling for the first time.
“I even had flings. It gave me hope that one day I would have a relationship again.”
Her proudest moment came when she stripped to shorts to swim at the Great Barrier Reef.
Layla said: “I realised people weren’t staring at me, and if they did it was because they wanted to know what had happened.”
Perspective: Her travels have given her a new outlook on life
She later visited South Africa and Kenya, adding: “Seeing the poverty and suffering helped me reassess life. I began to see how lucky I was.”
After two years, Layla returned to the UK and moved from Norwich to London last year to start a degree in social sciences, and hopes to become a social worker or counsellor.
She said: “Travelling helped me see I still have a great future. Seeing how big the world is, how much people can achieve, has helped put my suffering in perspective.
“And I’ve learned I have nothing to fear, because nothing could be worse than what I’ve been through already.”
Layla added: “I miss Mum so much, but I know she would be incredibly proud of me. I can finally say thank you to those who saved me and mean it.”