Lost Her Face
The Chimpanzee Attack
On February 6, 2009 a pet chimpanzee attacked Charla Nash. The chimp ripped the nose, lips and skin off Charla's face, leaving her blind and with just one thumb on two hands. But, Charla survived determined to live for the daughter she loved. In this program for the first time we'll tell the inside story Charla's amazing recovery. Her extraordinary courage, and the pioneering face and hand transplant that gave her back her life. And, in a world exclusive, her first interview since the transplant.
Stamford, Connecticut is a small city about 45 minutes north of New York. In 2009, Stamford was home to Charla Nash a 55-year-old single mother focused on raising her young teenage daughter – Briana.
Mike Nash, Charla's twin brother "Briana is Charla's most positive influence on life."
Briana Nash "I think I know that I was the centre of my mom's universe."
Charla worked as a dispatcher for a local towing company and often struggled to make ends meet. But, this is how it had always been for Charla. She led an unconventional and tough life and was never one to ask for help.
Charla's independent spirit drove her to run away from home as a teenager and work full-time with horses, her first true love. This passion led her to become a stand-out barrel-racer on the rodeo circuit. But, the free-wheeling lifestyle of the rodeo culture ended for Charla when baby Briana entered her life.
The two travelled from farm to farm Charla picking up work where she could until finally settling in Stamford. Charla was lured there by the promise of a job from Sandra Herold, an old acquaintance from the rodeo world. Sandra was an eccentric who lived with an unlikely companion, a 14-year-old chimp named Travis. Travis was raised by Sandra and treated like a son.
Richard Conklin, Captain, Stamford Police Department "Travis became very well-known by most everyone in the community. He became somewhat of a celebrity."
What Briana was to Charla, Travis was to Sandra. The two youngsters even played together when they were small.
Briana Nash "Travis was her life. Sandy would travel around with a big stack of pictures of Travis in her purse."
Richard Conklin "She would eat with Travis, they would sleep together, they would bathe together, go for walks and in latter years Travis became very obese because she would feed Travis lobster, Travis would drink from a wine glass."
To Charla working with Sandra came with some unusual demands like tending to Travis and welding his cage. Charla was always on call.
Briana Nash "Sandy was paying my mom to be around and she expected more of my mom than just answering the telephones. So mom would go up to her house take bags of Travis' waste out to the garbage and take it to the dump for her"
It was late morning on February 16, 2009. From the outside, things seemed normal in Sandra Herold's North Stamford property. But, inside, trouble was brewing. Travis was agitated. He stole Sandra's house keys, unlocked the back door and escaped into the garden. Sandra tried in vain to coax Travis back inside, but she was no match for the chimp who was becoming increasingly violent.
Richard Conklin "She's a 70-year-old, kind of frail woman and Travis is an obese chimpanzee probably in excess of 210 pounds. At some point Sandra calls Charla and asks her to come over to assist and she brought with her a squeaky toy to try to get Travis's attention."
Within seconds, Travis launched a savage attack on Charla, he pinned her to the ground and viciously began tearing her to pieces. Witnessing the brutal unprovoked assault Sandra grabbed a large kitchen knife.
Richard Conklin "She stabbed her beloved chimpanzee, Travis, several times and these were very deep wounds. She was so frightened that at that point she called 911"
Stamford police captain Richard Conklin was dispatched to the scene. Nine minutes into the emergency call the first two officers arrived.
Richard Conklin "Travis comes around to the driver's side door of the patrol car. He's just covered in Charla's blood. Officer Chiafari shoots Travis four times in rapid succession, the chimpanzee then runs from the scene as if nothing happens and disappears on the property."
Emergency workers descended on Charla's lifeless, almost unrecognisable, body. They assumed she was dead. Then she moved, Charla still had a pulse. Paramedics rushed to evacuate her from the scene while police focused on the animal assailant, still at large.
Richard Conklin "We get a small group of four officers, heavily armed, and we find a very distinctive blood trail that loops around and enters the front door of Sandra's home. We eventually find Travis lying dead in his enclosure at the rear of the house."
Across town, Charla was rushed to Stamford Hospital in critical condition. Trauma surgeon Dr Kevin Miller was there to receive her.
Dr Kevin Miller "It was so loud in the emergency room, as soon as I unwrapped the face you could have heard a pin drop. There were no recognisable features."
Charla's family were summoned to the hospital while doctors struggled to deal with the severity of her injuries and keep her alive.
Dr Kevin Miller "It was like nothing I'd ever seen and nothing anybody in the emergency room had never seen, the amount of damage that was done to Charla"
The morning after Charla Nash was attacked by the chimpanzee her family gathered at the hospital, anxiously awaiting an update on her condition. The facial injuries were acute, the nose, lips, eyelids and all of her skin had been ripped off. A dozen specialists worked to try to save what they could of Charla's face.