At first, Derri Velarde told herself she wasn’t going to look in the mirror.
The 41-year-old Mesa woman knew there were physical scars — second-degree burns to her face, neck, chest and arms (even her tongue was affected) — the result of a vicious and rare acid-throwing attack.
Emotional scars from the incident also were there, waiting beneath the surface of the image she wasn’t yet ready to face.
Eventually, though, curiosity got the best of her.
“It wasn’t as bad as what I thought it could have been,” Velarde said Thursday while recovering from the ordeal at a relative’s home in Massachusetts. “My physical appearance doesn’t seem like it’s changed too much. I will have to look at the scars, but not let it get me down. The scars are the least of my worries. I could’ve lost my sight, or my life.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life, and I can get through this. I’m just making sure I do all the right things I need to do to keep recovering.”
Acid attacks are rare in the United States and often are reserved for women in third-world countries.
Velarde has no idea what prompted her attack.
TAKING QUICK ACTION
The mother of five was returning home from work about 1 p.m. on Sept. 2 when she was approached by a woman she says she did not know or recognize in the parking lot of her residence at the Vista Grove Apartments, 1320 S. Val Vista Drive. Velarde thought it might be a neighbor approaching her with a drink in her hand.
When the woman threw the liquid in her face, Velarde at first thought it was water or coffee — but then it started to burn and caused her skin to bubble up.
“I ran inside my apartment and started screaming for my daughter and started flushing my face in the sink,” Velarde said. “Then, I started ripping off my clothes and jumped in the shower.”
Police and paramedics say Velarde’s quick actions are what helped reduce the severity of the burns.
Velarde says a burn psychologist told her that her resiliency and attitude are also helping her get through the ordeal. She remains in Massachusetts to stay “safe” with her attacker on the loose.
“I’m thankful for receiving the outpouring from my family and friends and from where I work,” said Velarde. “It’s helped me a lot because this has been a horrible thing to go through.
“It’s been difficult to understand why this has happened. I can’t imagine anything I’ve done to warrant this.”
Velarde’s attacker is described as a 30- to 40-year-old Hispanic woman with black shoulder-length hair, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, 140 pounds and wearing a black tank top and black sweat pants with a white stripe. Police say they have not identified any suspects, but believe the attack was not a random act.
“I don’t know who she was or why she was there,” Velarde said. “I don’t know if police have any strong leads, but they said they believe it was someone connected to someone I once dated or loved. Whether she was an ex-girlfriend of someone, and wanted to make sure another man didn’t want me, I don’t know.”
Velarde is going through a divorce and recently went to work after being a stay-at-home mother all through her 21-year marriage. She works part time in the daycare area of a fitness center and as a waitress at a restaurant.
Velarde confirmed she had received some text messages a few days before the attack, and described them as “intimidating,” but nothing she would consider physically threatening that would put her in imminent danger. She would not say who the text messages were from.
Velarde said she separated from her husband in November and re-entered the dating scene in April, and has a boyfriend she has dated for the last three months.
A RARE KIND OF ATTACK
Because of the rare nature of the attack, Velarde has appeared on a number of national news television programs to talk about her ordeal.
At first, it was believed to be the second acid attack within a week in the U.S., and authorities called it a copycat crime.
On Aug. 29, Bethany Storro, 28, of Vancouver, Wash., said she was attacked by a woman who threw a cup of acid in her face while walking down a sidewalk, causing her to suffer third-degree burns. But after police investigated the incident, they began to find holes in her story. And on Thursday, under questioning by detectives, Storro admitted to making up the story and dousing her own face with acid, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
“At first, I didn’t understand why anyone was so interested in this,” Velarde said. “But, then I heard about the acid attack on the woman in Washington and realized this was a serious thing.”
Dr. Ruth Rimmer, a burn psychologist at Maricopa Medical Center who has treated victims for 16 years, told the Tribune that acid attacks often are a form of punishment for women in third-world countries, leaving victims disfigured for life. In countries such as Cambodia or throughout the Middle East, women are doused with acid as a form of revenge, according to the Acid Survivors Foundation, based in Bangladesh.
Although statistics of acid attacks in remote areas around the world are hard to compile, there have been 79 reported to the foundation from throughout the world this year through August. Last year, the foundation reported 116 incidents overall.
STEPS TO RECOVERY
Velarde has a doctor’s appointment Monday and will better know what lies ahead on her road to recovery, whether she’ll require surgery and how long she’ll have to continue wearing burn garments. She currently is not working, but said she’s got “bills to pay” and knows she must move forward.
Velarde was hospitalized in the burn unit of Maricopa County Medical Center in Phoenix for six days. When she arrived there, she was kept outside the hospital for 20 minutes as a biohazard team analyzed the liquid and decontaminated her. The emergency crew that responded to the crime also had to be treated because their eyes were red and burning from the vapor coming from the acid, Velarde said.
Nitric or sulfuric acid can have a devastating effect on human flesh. Once it hits the skin, it immediately causes tissue to melt, often exposing bones, depending on the amount of acid. If it hits exposed eyes, the acid could blind for life. Significant amounts of acid surrounding the mouth can alter speech or prevent smiling.
“Throwing acid on someone is not a good idea for revenge,” Rimmer said. “It’s a heinous act. It’s a very traumatic situation for the person this happens to, there’s no doubt about it. There are significant issues when your face has been burned. How you look is how you identify with yourself and how others identify you. If that changes, others’ perception of you changes. It can be stressful, and burn victims are always reminded of the event because people always ask what happened.”
Depending on the strength of a relationship, Rimmer said women who are victims of such attacks also can have trouble in relationships, especially if it’s a superficial one based on looks.
Velarde said the incident has brought her and her boyfriend closer together.
“You would think that something like this happening would be taxing on a relationship, but it’s made our relationship stronger,” Velarde said. “My boyfriend has been amazing through this. If this was intended for him not to want me anymore, it didn’t work. After this happening, it takes me longer than ever to get ready to go out, but it’s nothing a little make-up won’t fix. I just hope I don’t need surgery.”
“I survived it. It didn’t take my life or my sight. I’m OK. Things will get easier. I’ve been blessed.”
Fundraisers for acid attack victim Derri Velarde
Fundraisers for acid-attack victim at Health and Wellness Expo in Queen Creek:
• Walk-A-Thon 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday with NFL alumni at Barney Family Sports Complex, 22050 E. Queen Creek Road, Queen Creek. Registration begins at 5 p.m.
• Zumba dancing exhibition 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Barney Family Sports Complex, 22050 E. Queen Creek Road, Queen Creek. Suggested donation is $20; participant pledges accepted.