Trigger warning: Domestic violence, child death
Sitting under my mum’s favourite orange tree, we sheltered in its shade.
When my parents Antoinette and Richard moved into their house in 2009, Mum poured her love into the neglected tree.
She proudly shared the fruit with her neighbours, and we often sat under it doing the that’s life! puzzles together.
In 2019, I moved back in with Mum, then 50, and Dad, 60, to give my little boy, Orlando, then six, a better life.
Mum had a heart of gold and was so happy to have us home. She used to like playing games with us.
But Dad could have a temper.
An old weatherboard house, it had sunk on one side, and the door frames scraped on the floorboards as they swung open.
It was this sound that woke me every morning before Dad started work in his back shed.
A heavy diesel mechanic, Dad would tinker and bang away.
After a week living there, Orlando was watching TV and I joined Mum on the back porch.
‘What’s Dad doing up there?’ I asked, pointing to the shed.
He wasn’t making his usual noises and had seemed on edge.
‘I don’t know,’ Mum shrugged.
In the months prior, Dad had been paranoid and he’d even gone to the hospital after having hallucinations.
Now, we thought perhaps he was a bit stressed but weren’t too worried.
After a few hours, Dad walked in carrying a 10 litre fuel can.
‘Fill this with petrol,’ he told Mum, saying he needed to mow the lawn.
But when she returned with it, we were baffled when he didn’t mow.
‘Maybe he’s just tired,’ Mum suggested.
Putting Orlando to bed, I gave him a cuddle.
‘I love you darling. Sweet dreams,’ I said.
Meanwhile, Dad was wandering around the house, sometimes pacing back and forth, and was keen for us all to call it a night.
‘Come to bed,’ he told Mum sternly, as she and I sat quietly, playing solitaire on our phones.
At first Mum refused, but eventually she turned in.
'Don't do this. My beautiful boy is in that room!'
‘Good night, love,’ she smiled.
Taking myself to bed not long after, I gave my boy a kiss on the forehead and fell asleep in the bed next to him.
Around 3am, I woke to the sound of the door being kicked open.
My eyes still adjusting, I felt terror as I saw my father in the doorway staring blankly.
He had a lighter in one hand and the fuel can in the other.
Instinctively, I knew we were under attack.
With Orlando sleeping soundly, I launched forward, wrestling Dad down the hallway.
Knocking the fuel out of his hands, I realised my body – and the house – were doused in petrol.
We’re all going to go up in flames, I panicked.
‘Don’t do this. My beautiful boy is in that room!’ I begged Dad.
I couldn’t take in what was happening.
But Dad ignored me. As he flicked the lighter, he pressed it against my chest.
With a loud roar, my whole body was engulfed in flames.
Racing back towards our bedroom, I noticed Mum’s door was ajar.
In that second, I couldn’t see Mum, but I knew she was already gone.
Reaching Orlando’s bed, I was about to wake him but stopped when I saw the flames licking my hands.
Jumping out of the window, I knew if I extinguished the flames, I could jump back through and save him.
I was so focused on Orlando, I hadn’t realised the extent of my injuries as I rolled around on the grass.
Grabbing the windowsill, I tried to get back to him, but I was powerless.
I need to find the garden hose! I panicked.
But I fell to my knees as my body gave up.
Looking through the window, I watched helplessly as a wave of flames engulfed my boy who was still fast
I felt my heart shatter.
I knew he too was gone.
This can’t be real, I thought.
Hearing Dad’s ute screaming up the driveway, I feared he was coming to run me over.
Jumping to my feet, I felt my body starting to freeze as I ran down the drive.
And right as my body was ready to give up, a hand grabbed the top of my right arm and made me run as fast as I could.
It was Ricky, our next-door neighbour, who had seen the fire.
‘Help!’ I screamed.
Dad’s ute tore away into the night.
Hearing sirens blaring in the distance, I fell to the ground in pain.
Another neighbour had heard my screams and called 000.
Relaying every detail I could to police kneeling beside me, my world then went blank.
Waking up a week later, my older brother and sister were at my side.
With a breathing tube down my throat, I couldn’t talk.
I sobbed silently as they confirmed what I already knew – my beloved mum and son were gone.
‘You’ve suffered full thickness burns to 75 per cent of your body.
You were in an induced coma,’ a doctor told me.
Even on medication, the pain was indescribable.
'If you hadn't pulled me, I wouldn't be here.'
My joints had calcified from the burns, my right ankle was twisted backwards, and all my toes were broken, after my desperate attempts to save Orlando.
My father, Richard George Sands, 60, was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of intent to murder, one count of intent to destroy property and one count of intent to endanger.
Thinking things over, I realised I hadn’t heard the door scrape that morning – had Dad fixed it knowing he would need to sneak out and grab the petrol can?
And why hadn’t the smoke alarm woken me up?
I couldn’t believe he’d done this, but I needed to focus on my recovery.
I endured countless painful surgeries as doctors took skin grafts from my scalp.
Six months in, I was ready to throw in the towel.
‘What’s the point? I’ve lost everything that matters,’ I sobbed to nurses.
Thinking of beautiful Mum and Orlando, I found the strength to push on.
Nine months, one finger amputation, endless skin grafts and physiotherapy sessions later, I was discharged and moved in with my sister.
I spent every effort learning to walk again.
I couldn’t put pressure on my toes, so I handcrafted a pair of shoes and cut the toes off them.
Then I made myself walk in them every day.
'What's the point? I've lost everything that matters.'
And when I felt confident walking up and down stairs, I pushed myself harder and learned to ride a bike.
Around the 10-month mark, I went back to the flat block of land where our house once stood.
All that remained was Mum’s beloved orange tree.
Sitting down for a cuppa with Ricky, we spent hours together talking about that night.
‘If you hadn’t pulled me, I wouldn’t be here,’ I said with a tear. ‘You’re my hero.’
In October 2021, the NSW Supreme Court ruled that my father was not criminally responsible for the fire.
The court heard that Mum had died from blunt force trauma, but Dad was likely experiencing a psychotic episode as well as having a major depressive disorder at the time.
While I was devastated and can never forgive him, I’m now able to share our story so Mum and Orlando aren’t nameless victims.
I’ve had Mum’s orange tree tattooed across my back so I can carry them with me forever and keep their memory alive.
I miss them every day, and I hope I can inspire other people to keep going, no matter what.
Now I’m working with medical professionals in Brisbane to better understand the healing process, and create better services for people with burns.
I am no longer a victim, I’m a survivor.