Carol Chia was 45 when she was burnt and wounded in a horrific bombing in Jakarta in 2003. The traumatic event broke the woman who was once a self-described "nasty piece of work". Photos courtesy of Carol Chia unless otherwise stated.

August 5, 2003. Commercial kitchen consultant Carol Chia and three colleagues were having lunch in the coffeehouse at JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

Normally at the end of work trips, they would head straight to the airport for a flight back to Singapore.

Carol Chia

Carol’s work, which she loved and prided herself in, took her to places like Jakarta, China and Macau. This photo was taken before the blast.

“But it was the first time we had half an hour to spare. So we decided to grab a quick bite at the hotel,” said Carol, now 65.

Fifteen minutes into their meal, a roar ripped through the coffeehouse.

White light blotted out everything.

This story follows how the infamous Jakarta bomb blast transformed Carol’s life, including in some surprising ways. (Read about it here.)

Seven months before Singaporean Carol Chia was caught in the Jakarta bomb blast, a particularly hardworking staff member had come crying to her.

She had had problems at home and was not coping well.

“It was the first time someone had cried on my shoulder,” said Carol, now 65.

“It made me realise that I didn’t know my staff. I didn’t know how to talk to them.”

Carol Chia

Carol today. Faint scars on Carol’s hands and left cheek are reminders of the hotel bomb blast in 2003, and the good that also came out of the horrific event. Photo by Gemma Koh.

Carol – then, in her mid 40s – wanted to learn what to say to this staff member in her time of need. So she signed up for a counselling course at Wesley Methodist Church.

“I didn’t know how to talk to my staff … Dealing with people freaked me out.”

Shortly afterwards, a leader asked her to join the team/lay counselling ministry as a volunteer counsellor.

“Dealing with people freaked me out,” Carol admitted.

She turned down the invitation, using work as an excuse.

At that time, she was a chain-smoking workaholic. Her typical day started in the late morning when she saw clients. She would work into the early hours of the morning and over the weekends.

But the counselling leader persisted.

Carol eventually accepted the invitation, praying: “Lord, this door is opening and, if You want me to go through it, I will give it a try.”

Ready-made support group

Just months later on August 5, 2003, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb outside the JC Marriott Hotel in Jakarta where Carol and three colleagues were having lunch.

Carol saw a bright light and afterwards heard God’s voice guide her out of the carnage. (Read about her miraculous escape below.)

“Carol, get out”: Jakarta hotel bomb blast survivor recalls the voice that guided her to safety 20 years ago


The explosion killed 13 people and injured 150 people, many seriously.

(The AP video below shows the aftermath of the blast that Carol escaped from.

TRIGGER WARNING: The following contains graphic descriptions and images that may be distressing to some.)

Carol suffered 14% burns to her face, hands, arm and thigh.

She underwent painful skin graft surgery and operations to fix her broken jaw and four severed facial nerves.

SGH Burns Centre

Carol suffered horrific burns to her hands in the blast. Screenshot from Channel U documentary, Sense of Being, that featured Carol’s rehabilitation and recovery in Singapore.

Her fellow counsellors from Wesley Church became her “ready-made support group” during her recovery.

“I felt I didn’t have a single friend in the industry I had worked in for 25 years … I was very arrogant.”

“God had put in place this ready-made support group for me.

“It touched me as I felt I didn’t have a single friend in the industry I had worked in for 25 years.

“I was very arrogant,” she admitted. “I was very good at what I did, and I was always right.

“In other words, I was very much in-your-face to my bosses, my colleagues, to people I was supervising, the team and the clients. Nobody was immune.

“I was a nasty piece of work.”

Learning to be vulnerable

Before the blast, Carol had taken a personality test.

“It showed that I was very low on empathy and very high on self-reliance,” she said.

“I did the same personality test many times. The results were the same.”

Carol Chia MGS

Carol (centre) with a couple of her MGS (Methodist Girls’ School) friends in a photo taken before the blast.

But surviving the bomb blast changed Carol in more ways than one. For starters, she learnt to allow people to help her as she recovered from her injuries.

These people ranged from family to old friends to strangers, and included staff at The Burns Centre at Singapore General Hospital.

Of the hospital staff, Carol said: “They were warm, caring and no nonsense. They took excellent care of me.”

People whom she had not seen in more than 30 years also got in touch with her.

“Initially, I was resentful: Why nobody wants to be my friend when I am well and good? But why this curiosity when I am injured?”

Caro Chia, Pang Seng Hock

Old friends who came back into Carol’s life after the blast included school counsellor Pang Seng Hock, a pre-university schoolmate who had had a crush on her 30 years earlier. They got married seven months after reconnecting. Read about the miracle of their love story here.

But Carol was ultimately grateful for the kindness and gentleness she received.

Carol, who described herself as “someone who would enjoy living on a deserted island”, learnt to “be vulnerable, to receive help and support”.

“I learnt to accept and deal with feelings of anger, shame and physical discomfort. I learnt to get on with life and to accept that it was okay not to do everything on my own. I learnt to be less in control and controlling.”

Unknown to her, these new traits that “built (her) up as a person” would stand her in good stead later on. 

No smoking

Carol began to see how God was stripping down the person she used to be.

The first thing He removed – after guiding her out of the rubble and black billowing smoke of the hotel – was her love for tobacco.

“I used to smoke 100 sticks of cigarettes a day. I would be on the phone and have two lit at the same time.

“I could have bought a round-the-world ticket at least twice a year with the amount I was smoking,” she quipped.

“I had to let go of the work that I had prided myself on, that I really loved.”

It was a miracle that freed her instantly from the habit that she had had for 25 years, she said. She hasn’t picked up a cigarette since.

Next, God took away her job – her “idol” – that she had stubbornly clung to.

Seven months after the blast, Carol heard God’s voice very clearly. She described it as “hearing thoughts, but I knew they were not my thoughts”.

“He said, ‘Carol, am I not enough for you? Why are you hanging on to your job?’”

She obeyed and submitted her resignation letter.

“I had to let go of the work that I had prided myself in, that I really loved and thought was God-given,” she said, tearing up at the memory.

“You cannot cling to what you think you have. You have to move forward,” she explained.

Softening the woman who never cried

Feeling responsible for the huge trauma that her elderly parents were going through, Carol was determined to recover and not wallow in self-pity.

She soon started finding joy in little things that she normally took for granted – such as the first shower she was allowed to take days after the blast.

Carol Chia Jakarta Marriott bomb blast 2003 survivor

Carol and her father in a photo taken four years before the blast.

Little did she expect to find a far greater joy six months after the blast.

It started when a friend from her MGS (Methodist Girls’ School) days persuaded Carol to attend the Alpha Course. Its loving, non-judgemental, no-pressure approach welcomes all to ask questions about the Christian faith.

“She wasn’t the crying type at all before the blast.”

“Bribed by the prospect of good food, I went,” Carol confessed.

Carol had attended the course a few months before the blast, but dropped out after a couple of sessions, citing work trips that took her to Jakarta, China and Macau.

In the sessions before the blast, Carol admitted that she couldn’t stand Nicky Gumbel (the winsome, smiley host in the Alpha videos), shared the leader of the course.

“But after the blast, she cried through all his videos and couldn’t get enough of them.

“She wasn’t the crying type at all before the blast,” said the Alpha leader, who has known Carol since they were 13 years old.

Carol agreed: “I would never let people see me cry. I never felt the need to cry.”

Through the videos and discussions, Carol was moved by the message that Jesus would have died for her – even if she were the only one on earth.

Carol Chia

Through the Alpha course, the previously self-described “grumpy and crabby” woman found joy and peace. Pictured on her arm is a special compression garment worn to prevent the formation of keloids after the skin-graft surgery.

“The Lord ministered to me,” said Carol. “There was a great softening throughout.”

Through the Alpha course, the previously self-described “grumpy and crabby” woman found a joy and peace that is only possible through God. She became hungry to learn more about Him and thirsty to learn more about the Bible. (John 7:37-38)

When Alpha leaders asked what the words “born again” meant to her, she said in a 2004 interview with Tidings, the Wesley Methodist Church magazine: “I saw how God stripped me of my old self, cleansed me in His consuming fire. I was born again in the blast meant for evil, but turned to good in me.” (Deuteronomy 4:21-24)

Said her Alpha leader: “The love of God touched her deeply, and still touches her deeply.”

Spiritually re-wired

Carol made the decision to continue serving God as a volunteer counsellor, building and encouraging others.

Looking back, Carol realised that on her road to recovery, she “learnt what strength could be, what encouragement meant”.

On her road to recovery, she “learnt what strength could be, what encouragement meant”.

“I realised I needed to be strengthened and encouraged before I could help others,” said Carol quoting 1 Thessalonians 3:2.

“I learnt to share that surviving the blast helped me realise that things are not always about me. There are people out there who need help.”

Carol believes that she is still a work in progress.

“I’m selfish and still say the wrong things,” she admitted.

“God is showing me that there is another side to being human.

“The overwhelming word is ‘humbled’. God humbled me.”

This story was originally published in Salt&Light’s sister website, Stories of Hope.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Carol’s story here:

Scarred and wounded, Jakarta bomb blast survivor found love … with schoolmate who had a crush on her 30 years earlier

“Carol, get out”: Jakarta hotel bomb blast survivor recalls the voice that guided her to safety 20 years ago

About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light and its companion site, Stories of Hope.