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Natasha Kaplinsky reflects on day her family’s lives changed one year on from horror accident

© Ian West / PANatasha Kaplinsky
Natasha Kaplinsky

A year on from a horrific accident that traumatised her family, Natasha Kaplinsky is reflecting on the day their lives changed.

“I’m very aware that things could have been so much worse and people suffer so much more than we did,” says the BBC news presenter.

“We’re lucky we survived what could have been an even more horrendous experience than it was.”

Kaplinsky, 46, is recalling the shattering experience that happened last June, when she, her parents, husband and their two children were sailing out to a small island near Corfu for lunch, and the motorboat they’d hired blew up after a petrol leak.

The scene is fresh in her mind – because with extraordinary courage, the family recently marked the anniversary of the accident by taking a boat back to the exact spot where their holiday turned to horror.

The explosion left her and her daughter, Angelica, aged eight at the time, with severe facial burns. Her father, Raphael, was also badly burnt. Her husband, Justin Bower, son Arlo, now 10, and her mother Catherine escaped injury.

The family were rescued from the water and eventually flown back to the UK, where Kaplinksy and her daughter endured months of treatment at a burns unit.

“I didn’t want boats to be an issue for our kids… it was a way of using that anniversary in a really positive way,” says Kaplinsky. “Physically, we’re OK, no permanent scarring, but emotionally we’re still on a journey.”

Talking candidly at her home, a farm in the Sussex countryside, she reveals the decision to get on a boat again was part of an effort to move forward.

It would not, she says, have been possible without her and Angelica undergoing EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – a treatment used for post traumatic stress disorder/PTSD).

“Until I had that therapy, I was literally incapacitated by tears. I couldn’t stop crying and having flashbacks. It was very hard feeling overwhelmed by my own feelings and dealing with my own pain, yet having to try to be strong for my daughter and help my father,” Kaplinksy recalls.

“The EMDR was amazing and helped both Angelica and I so much. I want to use our experience to help other people by raising awareness of its benefits,” adds the broadcaster, who won the first Strictly Come Dancing series back in 2004.

“I think I’ve always been extraordinarily grateful for everything anyway, but going through this certainly makes you realise how quickly things can be taken away.

“It might have ended very differently. We were so lucky to be found. Justin was on the phone when it happened and was able to send out an SOS, which was a lifesaver as we were far away from anywhere. Eight boats were out looking for us.

“Doctors told us that the 45 minutes we spent in the water was hugely healing and actually helped lessen the scarring, and then we benefited from treatment at one of the best burns units in the country, which just happened to be near our home.”

The family received an outpouring of support from friends, the local community, and total strangers moved by their plight.

“It was a very mixed time because it was so awful and we were in so much pain and so traumatised, and yet every day we were just overwhelmed by kindness and that was just really life-affirming,” she says.

“The house was filled with flowers, people sent Angelica gifts, and we received countless messages of sympathy and offers of help.”

Another comfort was what she describes as her “Noah’s Ark menagerie” of animals – 47 in total, including nine alpacas. Being in the country surrounded by them has, she says, been key in providing her with “calm and comfort”.

“I’m not into hobbies, shoes or handbags or anything like that, but I do collect animals. Watching them play is my biggest relaxation and I particularly love my gentle friendly alpacas.”

She and Angelica were so badly burned, they “didn’t leave the house for months and I put away all the mirrors”, Kaplinksy reveals. Now she is back at work, recently interviewing George and Amal Clooney.

She’s known for her charity work, and is an ambassador for Save The Children. As a Holocaust commissioner, she recorded the testimonies of Britain’s last Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators – for which she received an OBE in 2017.

She says of Strictly: “I wish I’d enjoyed it more but I found it so stressful. There was a lot of pressure for me to do it.

“I was new at the BBC and as a woman, being taken seriously in that industry is not that easy. I was worried that dressing up in sequins and a short skirt might not do my career much good.

“I fell in love with dancing on the show but it was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Motherhood, she says, is “amazing… I’m so blessed to have Arlo and Angelica, they’re the centre of my life and my focus is keeping them well and safe.”

She describes being in her 40s as “lovely”, adding: “I feel very settled and happy.”

A lifelong vegetarian, who doesn’t drink, she’s pretty health-conscious, saying: “I’ve got more into health and fitness as I’ve become an old lady and go to the gym and exercise about three times a week.

“Recently I’ve really fallen in love with yoga, which is very helpful for me as I have a bad back, since I had a very, very bad back accident when I was 19. It happened on a boat and I broke my back. Boats and I are perhaps not meant to be together!”

The legacy of the most recent accident, she says, is a renewed commitment to support people who are struggling.

“I hope I’ve always done that, but I’ve realised what a boost it is to have support from people when you’re in difficulties.

“I’ve also learnt just how precarious life is and how grateful we must be for every single day.”