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Rochester teacher's journey of recovery after being caught in blast in Cambodia

A young teacher who suffered serious burns in a petrol station explosion cheated death by just seconds.

Zoe Eleftheriou from Rochester, was feet away from taking the full impact of the blast in Cambodia as she rode past on her moped.

KMTV's Phil Wellbrook has been to meet Zoe

Three people died and at least 13 were badly injured in the shocking incident in the resort town of Siem Reap in mid-August.

Speaking at the family home in Wilson Avenue, she relived the horror of how she and a fellow teacher - American Abbey Alexander,18 - were caught up in the fireball.

The two women were returning to the school, where they teach English, when they noticed what they thought was smoke looming ahead of them.

Zoe then saw the flames, heard "a big boom" and, being virtually on top of the unlicensed petrol garage on the busy A road, decided to accelerate and "just go, go, go".

When clear, she jumped off, leaving her possessions including her phone, and fled. But looking back, she saw Abbey rolling on the ground, shouting "I'm on fire".

Zoe Eleftheriou. Picture: Facebook
Zoe Eleftheriou. Picture: Facebook

Zoe went to recover Abbey and together they made their way to the school.

She said: "The receptionist did not recognise me and I had been working there for six months. I was burning and all I wanted was ice and I said 'I need it now'."

Eventually she got to a clinic where she contacted her Cambodian family who had taken her under their wing, and her adopted brother Nana rushed to the rescue.

That's when the travel insurance she took out before she departed the UK at the end of January came into immediate effect.

Just a day later, she was transferred to an intensive care unit at a specialist burns hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Zoe told her parents she had been in a "minor incident" and when mum Mary announced she was flying out to be at her bedside, she said: "Don't bother, I'll be back at work in a week.

"Just give me some antiseptic cream and painkillers and I'll be fine."

But dad Christopher googled "LPG explosion at an illegal petrol station" on the internet and soon discovered otherwise.

The retired transport manager said: "I was surprised because she seemed so calm and level-headed."

Zoe had suffered 35% to 39% fourth and fifth degree burns all over her body, badly affecting her left leg and hands.

Zoe Eleftheriou with her parents. Picture: Andy Jones.
Zoe Eleftheriou with her parents. Picture: Andy Jones.

She was on painkillers and hallucinating and "totally oblivious" as to what was going on around her.

It was initially thought she would have to spend at least two months in the Thai capital.

But after gradually coming off the ventilator, which was helping to keep her alive, she was allowed to fly back under medical assistance on September 5.

Zoe was immediately transferred to Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, which specialises in burns care, where she has undergone a series of skin grafts, physiotherapy and counselling.

The former head girl at Thomas Aveling School, Rochester, is now recovering at the family home, but still has to make regular visits to the hospital in West Sussex.

Zoe Eleftheriou was seriously injured in the blast
Zoe Eleftheriou was seriously injured in the blast

She said: "At the moment, I have pink, red, white and brown skin and some sexy marks on my feet where my flip-flops had been. They say pigmentation can take six months or up to two years to heal."

Having been bed-ridden for three weeks, she was asked one day if she would like to try to stand.

She said: "Up until then, it sounds horrible, but I was functioning as a vegetable. I can't put weight on my foot, so I can't walk yet. It's great at the age of 22 that I am no longer in nappies and using a bed-pan."

"The first time I saw my face, I did not like it. I had no eyebrows or lashes and had lost my long hair. It was bright red, apple red, fire red.

"I have had tremendous support from family and friends and I wanted them to see my face first before it appears in the media.

"The first time I saw my face, I did not like it. I had no eyebrows or lashes and had lost my long hair. - Zoe

"I don't know why at Heathrow they wanted to see my passport because I don't look anything like my passport photo."

Zoe was also wary of reactions from children and younger relatives.

She said: "One seven year old said: 'You are still the same Zoe, you just look a little different'."

Gradually Zoe, who has been catching up on television, has already started going out socialising.

She said: "I have been to the cinema at night, because it was dark, and I have been on a picnic with friends."

Zoe Eleftheriou recovering, pictured with her mum and dad
Zoe Eleftheriou recovering, pictured with her mum and dad

Dad Christopher said: "We as a family are very protective and are keeping her in a bubble. She never goes out alone and is with a family member or friend.

"Her confidence is growing and her injuries are beginning to heal. But she still has a journey to go."

Zoe has a passion for travelling having been to countries all over the world, including America, Tanzania, Bali, and Vietnam.

After her experience, she cannot stress enough the importance to fellow travellers of getting full travel insurance.

She said: "It was on my mum's tick list before I went anywhere. You might say I don't need it, but you do."

Zoe and her Cambodian "brother" Nana
Zoe and her Cambodian "brother" Nana

Zoe paid £350 for full cover with Australian company World Nomads, which was key to ensuring she got first class treatment.

She said: "Nana came to me immediately when he found out and sorted out the insurance cover. Otherwise, as soon as you get to a hospital you are asked for thousands of dollars to pay for medical fees.

"I would not have been flown to Bangkok as soon otherwise and would have remained in a treatment centre where there may be a high risk of infection."

Her friend Abbey did not have travel insurance and her family had to set up a GoFundMe page to get her flown to a hospital in Denver, Colorado. The American Embassy also stepped in to help them out financially.

Zoe first went to Cambodia in 2016 to join Camp Cambodia to help out at English summer camps. She had hoped to get a similar job in the Maldives or Thailand and was originally dubious about going there.

Zoe at "family" wedding in Cambodia
Zoe at "family" wedding in Cambodia

But she said: "As soon as I got there I fell in love with the people, food and culture."

She was taken in by a Cambodian family whom she stayed with and who became her "second family".

Nana, 30, is like a brother to her.

Despite her harrowing ordeal, it has not put her off going back.

She said: "I just can't wait to get back out there."

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