Acid attack victim: fearful, but grateful

Woman says she’s resolved not to let assailant ruin her life

By Bob Albrecht, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

Updated: September 2, 2010, 9:59 PM

 
photoBethany Storro

How to help:

Donations can be made to the “Bethany Joy Storro” account, established by Storro's co-workers at Safeway, at any Riverview Community Bank branch. Riverview has locations in Camas, Hazel Dell, Orchards, Salmon Creek, east Vancouver, downtown Vancouver and Washougal.

ONLINE VIDEO:

See Bethany Storro speak at Thursday’s press conference.

Bethany Storro was wheeled into a small conference room with her face wrapped in bandages. Her parents on either side of her, she shoved aside the moments when she’s asked, “Why me?” and instead struck a thankful tone.

“I’m just trying to stay positive,” she said. “It’s not about looks. I can’t let what she did to me ruin my life.”

From the looks of things Thursday, she won’t. The bandages covered her face but were no match for her easy-going disposition and sharp wit.

“I’m generally a happy person — everyone’s just been so nice to me,” she said.

Storro spoke for about 30 minutes in a room at the Oregon Burn Center at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, where she’s receiving medicine to fight off pain and treatment to generate fresh skin.

Later Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department released a composite drawing of the assailant, based on interviewing Storro earlier in the day.

Storro described her attacker as “pretty,” and said she thinks she had three piercings at the top of her left ear. She said the woman was black, wore no makeup, and had black hair pulled into a ponytail. Storro said the woman was approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall. She was wearing a green top and khaki shorts.

Police say the assailant may be slightly built.

The news conference came just one day after Storro underwent a dermabrasion procedure to save her appearance, just three days after an attack she said left her both fearful and grateful.

“It was the most painful thing,” the 28-year-old said, recounting the Monday attack in which a stranger splashed a cup of acid into her face. “My heart stopped. I almost passed out. It made holes in my shirt. Imagine that on your skin. I could hear sizzling.”

A Christian, Storro returned throughout the half-hour to her profound belief that God is watching over her.

She points to the sunglasses — credited with saving her eyesight — that she bought 20 minutes before the incident as a sign of divine presence.

“For some reason, I had this feeling I needed to buy sunglasses,” Storro said. “That’s Jesus, for sure.”

She said she picked out the “cute” sunglasses a week earlier, and went to buy them Monday after receiving a paycheck in the mail.

She was wearing them as she stood by her car Monday, on Columbia Street just south of Ninth Street, police said. That’s nearly one block up Columbia from Esther Short Park and the Starbucks near West Eighth Street and Columbia.

She was found injured on the west side of Columbia, police said.

Storro said she was planning to get some coffee at the shop at about 7:15 p.m. when a woman approached and said, “Hey, pretty girl. How are you? Would you like a drink of this?”

Storro declined. The woman let the acid fly. Storro called it a “miracle” she’s not blind.

Wants people to know

She said she decided to tell her story because she wants to ensure the woman who burned her face is caught.

“If I saw her, I would instantly know,” Storro said. “I want people to know what this person did to me.”

The acid caused second-degree burns and deeper. Storro said she could need a skin-graft down the road if there’s an indentation around her nose and mouth, where most of the acid hit.

She’s likely to remain in the hospital for several more days before leaving to stay with her parents, Joe and Nancy Neuwelt.

“This is my little girl,” Joe Neuwelt said, choking up as he spoke. “We’re a strong-knit family that loves each other very much. We’re going to get through this.”

Storro recently returned from Priest River, Idaho, to her native Vancouver. She works in the deli at the Safeway grocery store in Washougal.

Employees there set up a fund to help Storro and her family recover from the apparently random attack. Donations can be made at any Riverview Community Bank in the name of Bethany Joy Storro.

“There was an immediate response from her co-workers,” said Dan Floyd, a Safeway spokesman. “I think we’re all moved by the response of our employees, especially the employees that have worked with her at her store in Washougal and throughout Southwest Washington and Oregon. I’m working with the burn unit right now to make a donation on behalf of our association for future burn victims.”

Storro read reporters’ lips as they asked her questions. She suffered spinal meningitis twice as a child, which left her hearing impaired. With that, she circled back to the sunglasses.

“To be hard of hearing and blind? That would just drive them nuts,” she said, laughing and pointing at her parents. “I’m just so glad. It’s a miracle. I mean, 20 minutes.”

She said she spoke with a chaplain Wednesday night after her surgery. They talked about forgiving the woman who committed an attack she’ll never forget.

Amber Shoebridge, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said Thursday afternoon that physicians are waiting to see how well Storro heals before deciding what to do next.

“She’s just trying to get some rest,” Shoebridge added.

A Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman said no suspects have emerged. Detectives canvassed the area around the park Wednesday night and again Thursday, interviewing employees at nearby businesses and talking with people as they walked the park.

“No one saw anything helpful,” said Kim Kapp, the spokeswoman. “So far, no suspect has been identified.”

Kapp said she’s been fielding calls from the “Dr. Phil” and “Inside Edition” shows as well as the “Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” They’re all looking for more details on the acid attack.

Police have suggested no motive for the attack. Storro said there’s no one who wanted to harm her.

She hypothesized that maybe the woman woke Monday planning to “carry some acid in a cup and throw it on the first person I see.”

“In time, I’m going to forgive her,” Storro said. “If I don’t, I’ll never move on.”

Earlier acid assault

Another young woman was attacked with acid thrown in her face on July 30 in Puyallup, said a lieutenant with the police department there.

However, “Besides the nature of the assaults, we don’t see any similarities,” McDonald said.

That 23-year-old was approached in the parking lot of her apartment complex shortly before 5 a.m. by a man who asked for a glass of water. He told her he’d been locked out of his own apartment and needed the water for his vehicle. When she returned and handed him the glass, the suspect threw the acidic substance in her face.

The victim in that case is home recovering and police have no suspects, the Puyallup lieutenant said.

Vancouver police Detective Sgt. Scott Creager said late Thursday afternoon that the Major Crimes Unit is checking out about 20 tips.

“People are being very helpful and we’d like to keep the tips coming in,” he added.

Anyone with information on the attack is asked to call Detective Wally Stefan at 360-487-7425.