Seven weeks after a vicious sulfuric acid attack, Katie Piper readied for her release from the hospital. The 26-year-old former model and aspiring television presenter was burned beyond recognition when a stranger threw acid in her face on a London street in March 2008.
"The pain was so bad I thought this guy's thrown a match at me... I thought I must be a big orange fireball because it's so painful," she recalled. "I remember bits of my face were coming off and bits were coming away, and my clothes were all evaporating and I was panicking. I was banging on the windows of the shops and people were scared."
Security cameras captured the incident and police learned that Piper's boyfriend, Danny Lynch -- a 33-year-old martial arts enthusiast Piper had started dating just two weeks earlier, had hired a henchman to throw the acid at the stunning model.
"This is when my life changed completely, forever…" she said, "This is when I lost my beautiful face."
The acid melted all of the skin on her face, neck and hands and when she arrived at the hospital, she was missing an ear and parts of her nose, and was blind in one eye. Piper's doctors began a series of reconstructive surgeries, including a revolutionary skin graft to reconstruct her face.
But even after a marathon of reconstructive surgeries, psychological hurdles remained. Piper, whose looks were the key to her aspiring career as a model, hadn't seen a mirror since the day she was assaulted.
"I remember I had no eyelids and it was just the actual eyeballs round -- all exposed, and...[I] had no nose," Piper said. "It was just...it was so difficult, so alien."
"She looked at [her face] and burst into tears," said her father, David Piper. "And she looked at me and said, 'It's not me. It's not the face I was born with.'"
In shock, Piper asked for a moment alone before the ride to her family's home in Andover, England.
"I was alone in the room. And I was praying and I was talking to God and I knew God had a plan for me, I knew he was taking me on a journey," she said. "And I decided how hard it was going to get, I was going to keep on that journey.
Piper's Road to Recovery
Piper's road to recovery was long and filled with many more trips to the hospital. At home, she was forced to wear a plastic mask 23 hours a day to help her wounds heal.
The attack had stolen the carefree woman's identity and crushed her spirit. "I've never been like this where there's no point in waking up," she said. "I thought I was invincible, lived for the moment and loved life."
Piper's mother, Diane, quit her job to focus on her daughter's care.
"I thought, 'Well, I'll have to give up work. Kate won't want to go anywhere. She won't want to be seen by anybody. She'll become a recluse. I will give up my life; I will stay at home with her,' And that was the future. An empty future," Diane Piper said.
But as Piper settled in at home, the fear did not wear off. She was terrified of anyone approaching the house. Even the doorbell was paralyzing.
"It was like having a child again, instead of having a woman," her father said. "If somebody dropped a tray, she would nearly come off the bed. ...She was so frightened of men, generally, and just anything that was scary. And she had terrible days of, you know, hallucinations."
Visions of Attackers Haunt Model
Beyond a forest of medical concerns, Piper also obsessively worried about the legal proceedings against Lynch, who authorities said had a history of violence and had paid Stefan Sylvestre to throw the acid at Piper.
"In the first few months at home, every night I'd have nightmares about my attackers," she said. "I would see them over me, I'd wake up screaming."
By day, a glance at her reflection in the mirror sparked a firestorm of anger.
"My appearance is a constant reminder of what he did to me. And almost like I belong to him, because it's not really my face -- it's the one he created through the attack," Piper said. "I think that's like the only thing I feel I belong to, is him. I always have, like, his marks all over my face, all over my body. I'll never be like the person I was born to be like -- the person I'm supposed to be."
"It was really hard," said Piper's younger sister Suzy. "One day ... you sort of thought, 'Oh, you know, maybe she's getting better.' And then it could be even just half an hour later ... she wouldn't speak or she would be really upset or she'd be angry. It was like a roller coaster."
For over a year, Piper only left her home for trips to the hospital. She dreaded going out in public, even shopping at the mall, because people stared.
Burned Model Celebrates Triumphant Journey
Slowly, Piper began rearranging her life. "She sort of reached this conscious decision ... when she said, 'I am not going to be a victim. I'm going to be a survivor,'" David Piper said.
Eighteen months after the incident, the former self-described "party girl" decided to throw a party for those who were a part of her terrible but triumphant journey.
"I'd accepted that this was me. This was my new, beautiful face," she said. "I'd had a lot of help from the people that really mattered. I wanted to thank them in a way that I could ... and I knew it would mean a lot to those people to see me enjoying myself and out. I think that was a reward to them and to me as well."
"I never dreamed that we'd see her like that again," said Suzy. "And so to look at her I just thought that it's Kate again. She's back, you know. And it was so nice."
Her next milestone was leaving the house alone. Piper took a short walk into town. It was an emotional moment for Piper and her mother.
"I think I've got a chance to build a life, and I don't know if it's going to be that easy, but I want to try. I don't want to be a scared little child. I want to blossom into a confident, able woman," she said. "The scars, the mask, everything encased me in this little shell, and I want to break free and be my own person ... I want to be rid of that and just be Katie."
Piper's Plans for the Future
Piper first told her story in a British television documentary, "My Beautiful Face," which gave her the platform to rebuild her life. She now wants to help other burn victims receive the same extensive rehab that she did.
"We actually talk about it now -- she wants to set up a clinic here in London so, you know, anyone who is burnt can go to this clinic for as much rehab as possible," said best friend Kay Little. "I think she's actually probably got a brighter future now than she had as a, you know, as a model and, and TV presenter."
Piper admits that before the incident, she was self-obsessed.
"I was the most important thing in my life. There was always something in my life that I was missing and I never knew what that hole was. And after my accident I found a faith and, and I learned to believe in God and I started to pray…And that void has been filled in my life," she said. "I feel enriched in that way through the accident. And I think it's taught me that I don't want to be a cliche ...it has taught me that, you know, looks aren't everything."
A jury found Stefan Sylvestre, the man who threw the acid, guilty of causing bodily harm. He received a life sentence, with a minimum of 12 years in prison. Piper's ex-boyfriend David Lynch, who orchestrated the attack, received two life sentences, and will serve at least 16 years in jail.
"I've got some terrible memories that will live with me forever," Piper said. "But slowly I'm replacing them with some fantastic memories that nobody can take away."
Katie Piper's Foundation: http://www.katiepiperfoundation.org.uk/