When Polly Brooks hit the dance floor with her buddies while her husband, who had been married for five weeks, ordered drinks from the bar at a Bali club, she was on cloud nine.
Seconds later, their dreamy honeymoon turned into a nightmare when an explosion rocked the Sari Club.
It killed her husband, Dan Miller, and nine friends, including her bridesmaid, Annika Linden.
Surrey-born Polly was the only one of her group to survive when three bombs were detonated by an Islamist terrorist group on October 12, 2002.
The blasts killed 202 people from 33 different nations, including 28 Britons and 88 Australians, and injured hundreds more.
Polly, then 29, had burns covering 43 per cent of her body and endured 11 life-saving surgeries and weeks in hospital – all while dealing with the daily horror of another person close to her being identified as a fatality.
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack, Polly tells how the crushing grief made her wish she had died in the blast in the documentary Bali Bombings: The Real Death in Paradise.
“When I gradually found out that everyone had died, I was angry that I had been left behind,” she says.
“It felt really unfair that I had to deal with it and try to get better and deal with it.
“I didn’t want to be alive.”
love at first sight
Town trader Polly from Guildford was living and working in Hong Kong when she took her first girls holiday to Bali.
She met Kent lawyer Dan, who also works in Hong Kong, at a rugby match on the island paradise and says it clicked immediately.
“As soon as I met Dan, I knew I was going to marry him,” she says. “It was amazing chemistry. He was everything I was looking for – smart, athletic, funny, a twinkle in his eyes. He had this adventurous spirit, which I also had.”
That night, they met at a club in Kuta’s party district, where Dan was “straight forward” for Polly, who was then 27, and they kissed.
The couple became inseparable as they continued dating after returning to Hong Kong, and a year later they returned to Bali, where Dan proposed.
A traditional church wedding was planned for September 2002 in the UK. Polly chose Annika, her best friend since she was eight, to be her bridesmaid alongside her nieces and nephews.
“We were as happy as could be,” says Polly.
Encased in a fireball
After the big day, the couple embarked on their honeymoon in the Maldives and Sri Lanka before returning to Bali, where they met friends from Dan’s rugby team, the Hong Kong Vandals and Annika.
On October 12, they made their way to dinner and the Kuta Party Strip, arriving at the Sari Club just before 11am.
Minutes later, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in Paddy’s Bar across from the club.
Seconds passed before a truck full of explosives also detonated in the street outside, sending an explosion through the doors, setting the partygoers ablaze.
“This yellow light was coming at me and it was like in the movies,” Polly recalls. “You literally get lifted off your feet and thrown into the air.”
I could only see flames and hear people screaming. I really thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die’
When she hit the ground, Polly’s roof collapsed and she was trapped in the burning building.
“All I could see was flames and I could hear people screaming. I was really like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die,'” she says.
“I had a beam that crushed my right leg. All of this happened in a split second, but it felt like slow motion.”
Blinded by the raging fire, Polly felt a gap above her and pulled herself onto the roof with what she calls “superhuman strength”.
“I remember looking ahead and there was just a wall of flames,” she says. “I was so scared. I was on fire so I just screamed and ran over the roof.”
When she reached an area outside, a stranger wrapped her in a blanket to douse the flames and held her up to keep her from collapsing.
I was so scared I was on fire so I just screamed and ran over the roof
But help came slowly. The blast had caused a roadblock and trapped around 70 injured in a dead-end street.
“It was like being trapped in hell,” says Polly. “It was excruciatingly painful. Buildings were burning around us. It was terrifying.”
She had no idea where Dan and Annika were and hoped they too had escaped alive. When someone gave her a cell phone, she managed to call her mother, but there was no message from her husband.
“I said to Mum, ‘I’m fine, I’m a bit burned.’ I knew I was in extreme pain, but I had no idea how close I was to death,” she says.
Severe burns and thighs ‘like roast beef’
After a hellish three hours, rescuers broke through and managed to get Polly to a hospital where, overwhelmed by victims, staff loaded her onto a trolley and provided her with minimal care.
“My skin was sagging, my clothes were burned into me,” she says.
“They had fluids to keep me alive but they ran out of morphine so I was put on IV paracetamol and they just peeled off my skin and wrapped me up and put fluids in.
“It was a horrible situation because I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t know where Dan or Annika or any of the others had gone.”
Polly caught the deadly infection MRSA in the hospital. Luckily, the Australian authorities intervened the next day and flew the injured, including Polly, to Darwin.
After cleaning her wounds, they flew her to a burns unit in Brisbane, where she was picked up by her mother and father, who had been flown out by her company.
“It was a terrible shock,” mother Rosemary recalls. “Her head was completely swollen. We had no idea the extent of her burns.
“What she looked like is burned into my brain. Her thigh was like a piece of beef.”
Devastated to survive
Polly underwent 12-hour surgery, with surgeons using undamaged skin from most of her body to patch the burned areas.
“I was literally in pain from head to toe,” she says. “I had thousands of staples in my body. Having my wounds cleaned every day was torture.”
As she recovered, each day brought her new, heartbreaking news of the deaths of her friends.
“It was really difficult because I was in bed and they were confirmed one after the other and Dan was one of the last,” she says.
“To be honest, I was really unlucky that I survived.”
Polly missed the funerals of her friends, including Annika, and could only text from her hospital bed.
It took her nine weeks to fly back to the UK, arriving on December 18 – three days before husband Dan’s funeral and what Rosemary called “the saddest Christmas ever”.
“Mom was amazing at showing me the way forward,” says Polly.
“She said, ‘Don’t be angry, don’t be bitter, because the only person doing harm is you. You have to look ahead.'”
The attack was traced back to the extremist Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah and several perpetrators were arrested.
Ringleader Hambali – who received funds from 9/11 terrorists Al Qaeda – had mandated a strategy of hitting soft targets like nightclubs and bars, rather than high-security installations like embassies.
Ali Imron, who was convicted of his involvement in the bombings, said they were in response to the American invasion of Afghanistan after the Twin Towers attacks in 2001. Bali was chosen “because it was frequented by Americans and their associates “.
Three of the attackers – Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Huda bin Abdul Haq – were executed by firing squad after being sentenced to death by the Indonesian government. Imron was sentenced to life imprisonment for showing remorse.
Hambali spent 19 years at the US center in Guantánamo Bay before being indicted in 2021. He’s awaiting his trial.
Though Polly kept up with the trials, she was focused on rebuilding her life.
“In the end, it didn’t change anything,” she says. “You couldn’t bring her back. While it was important to me that they were captured and punished, I didn’t want to focus my energies on that.”
As a result, Polly started the charity Dan’s Fund For Burns to raise money to support burn victims and buy specialty medical equipment.
To date they have raised over £80million and donated Meek Mesher machines, which expand donor skin before transplantation, to seven hospitals.
They also provide support and advice to hundreds of burn victims and hired the first full-time clinical psychologist on the main burns service in London, prompting the NHS to introduce vital psychological care for patients across the country.
Polly, who received an MBE in 2020, has found happiness with second husband Andy Brooks, with whom she has two children.
“A lot of people ask me if I have any regrets about going to Bali or living in Asia and I say I can’t regret a single moment of it,” she says.
“We didn’t make a dangerous decision, we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unhappy.
“Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved? Yes absolutely.
“I am living proof that you can survive anything, rebuild, and be happy again.”
Bali Bombings: Real Death in Paradise Special’airs on RealJ, Sunday 2nd October, 10 p.m. Also available to stream on Discovery+
https://www.the-sun.com/news/6344913/bali-bombings-husband-killed-newlywed/ I survived the terrorist attack in Bali that killed my new husband and 9 friends – the moment the bomb fell was cinematic