In December 2004, Petra Nemcova, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, was on a romantic trip through Thailand, showing off the country she loved to her boyfriend, Simon Atlee. Then the tsunami struck -- the fierce waves carried Atlee away to an untimely death. Nemcova survived, clinging to a tree with a shattered pelvis.
In her new book, "Love Always, Petra: A Story of Courage and the Discovery of Life's Hidden's Gifts," Nemcova shares her story of how she healed both physically and emotionally from the tragedy. She also tells the story of her rise from a poor Czech teenager to an international modeling success. Below is the prologue from the book.
December 26, 2004
Khao Lak, Thailand
It brought me back to consciousness, a sharp, agonizing, throbbing pain racking my body, my legs.
I opened my eyes and looked down. Black filthy water covered the lower half of my body. I couldn't even see my legs. My arms, bare, scratched, bleeding and aching, were wrapped around a palm tree. I was holding on, leaning against the trunk. Black, oil-slicked, muddied water choked with debris was everywhere. I looked up. The sky was blue, clear, untroubled, the sun was shining. Where was I? Where was Simon? What had happened?
Simon and I were in the bungalow when a rush of water rose up so suddenly there was not even a second to think, a rush of water that came from all directions, hurtling us out into the furious current. For one split second, before the water separated us, I saw Simon's face.
"Petra!" he screamed. "Petra! What's happening?"
I couldn't answer. I didn't know. Then I lost sight of him. Seconds later, I saw him again, whirling in the tumbling waters. He was a few yards ahead of me. Behind him a rooftop was sticking out of the water.
"Catch the roof! Catch the roof!" I shouted. Then he was gone. I don't know whether he heard me or not. I prayed that he would catch hold. I was sure he would. He was a strong swimmer; he had to be okay.
It was impossible to tell in which direction the waters were streaming. I needed to grab onto something or be swept away. I saw another rooftop. I reached out my arms, and sending out every bit of energy I had, I grabbed the edges and held on. Instantly, my legs were sucked underneath, and everything accumulated by the raging water, the wood and metal objects, all the trash, began slamming against my hips and legs. I hung on, screaming with pain and fear. I would be crushed into nothing. For the first time, I thought of dying.
Miraculously, the pressure of the water began to lessen. I pulled myself up onto the roof. My clothes had been torn from my body. I was naked. Then, as quickly as the first, another tremendous wave rose up and poured over the rooftop. I lost my grip and was drawn down beneath the water. Frantically, I flailed my arms, trying to get out from under the thick layer of filth between me and the surface. Desperately, I fought to get some air until I had no breath left. I stopped fighting, stopped struggling, and began swallowing the inky water. A great feeling of peacefulness came over me. I surrendered to the calmness. Whatever was meant to be, whatever God will decide, it's okay.
At that moment, without any effort on my part, I was thrust through the barrier of debris to the surface. I threw my head back and gasped for air. Above me was the blue, blue sky. I was never so happy in my life to see the sky.
I don't remember ever being happier. I was in Thailand, a country I loved, with my love, Simon Atlee. Simon was a photographer, and we'd been a couple for eighteen months. We were going to spend our second Christmas and New Year's together in a very special way. Usually, Simon booked our holidays, but this time I did everything. That is, I made all the arrangements through a travel agent in Los Angeles. She was Thai and took particular interest in helping me create the perfect vacation. This was my fifth visit to Thailand and Simon's first; I wanted him to experience with me the lush green of the land, the smells, the sunshine, the ocean, the food exploding with taste in your mouth, the culture, and most important, the people. The Thais are the kindest people I ever met, and it comes from inside -- it's not learned, it's natural. They put their hands together and bow their heads to greet you, taking the moment to show respect in such a gentle way. The gracefulness and peacefulness are addictive, and this land is in my heart. It had been nearly three years since my last visit, but the minute we arrived, I knew I was "home."
At Bangkok International Airport, we changed planes and flew on to the first of our three stops, Chiang Mai. This was my first visit to this city, so Simon and I were seeing things through the same eyes. We went on different tours, including guided visits to nearby Buddhist temples. One tour guide explained that, in the past, there had been a war between the Burmese and the Thais. Bad things happened, but the good thing was, the Burmese brought Buddhism to Thailand. I am inspired by the gentle teachings of the Buddha, so this was especially interesting to me.
We went to see a giant, seated Buddha on a nearby mountaintop. It wasn't a very touristy place; in fact, Simon and I were the only visitors. As is customary in many sacred places, we took off our shoes and went inside on our knees to pay our respects. We lit a candle and incense and placed flowers before the golden statue. Off to the side, two young monks wearing saffron robes were seated at a table with a checkerboard on top. The monks were playing checkers with flower petals and broken matches for the game pieces. Simon wanted to take a picture, but the minute he took out his camera, the monks put everything away and ran off. Obviously, they didn't want to get caught playing games.
We went to see the Long Neck Ladies, tall, thin, and elegant women who wear golden rings around their necks. These rings are a sign of beauty. They are put on starting when the women are little girls, and in time their necks stretch up many inches. I think they are a tribe from Burma.
Simon took lots of pictures, especially of one adorable little girl. She kept smiling and repeated every word Simon said.
"Can I take a picture?"
"Can I take a picture?"
Simon giggled like a schoolboy.
We went to the umbrella factories and the silk factories and bought presents. We went to see the amazing elephant shows. The elephants play football with their feet, play harmonicas with their trunks, and most incredible of all, they paint pictures on large pieces of paper. The keepers put brushes in their trunks, and the elephants paint with such a concentration -- not all over the place, but very precise. The keepers change the colors, and the elephants make flowers and trees. It is unbelievable, and even more unbelievable, the paper is made from elephant dung. Simon bought two of these specially prepared paintings for his niece and nephew. We fed bananas to the elephants and played with the cute little babies with the spiky hairs on their heads. Of course, we took an elephant ride through the jungle.
Before we left Chiang Mai, Simon and I went to a special temple where monks give out cloth bracelets. The threaded cloth comes in one very long piece; the monks tie an end around your wrist, make a knot, and cut it as they chant a prayer. The bracelet is for protection and once on, must remain until it falls off. Women get the bracelet on the left arm and men on the right, but for some reason, both of ours were put on our right arms. When we got back to our hotel room, Simon said his bracelet was in the way and he was going to switch it to his watch hand. I told him to let it be.
"You're not supposed to undo it. You're not supposed to let it get away from your skin."
"Don't worry, Petra, I'll keep it in close contact with my flesh. It'll be okay."
He kept his arms pressed against each other as he undid the bracelet, slipped it around his left wrist, and quickly knotted it again.
"See?" He smiled, holding up his arm to show me. "Everything's okay."
From Chiang Mai we flew south to Phuket, and from there we drove an hour and a half to the Khao Lak Orchid Resort. Khao Lak is noted for its scuba diving school, and Simon was eager to scuba dive. Recently, I'd had some inner ear problems and couldn't dive, but I wanted Simon to enjoy it. We checked into a front-row bungalow on a beautiful stretch of white-sand beach with palm trees everywhere. The bungalow was a big room with a large bed on one side and a sitting area with a table and chairs on the other. At the entrance was a door to the bathroom. The bathroom had a shuttered window that opened onto the main room. You could open the shutters and look out from the bathroom through the living room window to the ocean. We stayed that night in the bungalow happy to be in paradise together. We spent the next day playing on the beach, where Thai ladies, carrying cooler boxes, walked up and down, crying, "Pineapple, papaya, watermelon, massage." You could get fruits or a massage or both. There is nothing like a Thai massage -- so relaxing. I learned how to give them on my first visit, and though I was good at it, I wanted Simon to experience the real thing.
Early that evening we checked out of the hotel and went to the scuba center. From there we took an open van to the harbor, where many boats were lined up side by side. After scrambling over a number of boats, we reached ours. I have to admit I was nervous about climbing from deck to deck in the dark, but holding Simon's hand made me feel safe. Once we got on our boat, we had to remove our shoes, and they stayed off for the three days we were on board -- I loved it. If I could, I would stay barefoot all the time. Simon and I were shown to our living quarters, a little cabin with bunk beds -- we slept on the bottom spooning happily together. The divers were a mixed group -- English, Swedish, American, and Australian -- of about twenty-four people, plus the Thai crew.
Every morning there was an on-deck briefing, to go over the dive site, the currents, the rocks, the depth, the fish, etc. Then you'd suit up, get your oxygen tank, and go over the side. There were four dives a day. I was with Simon every time he prepared for a dive, and I was waiting for him when he came back. He was so happy; he loved the scuba diving. And he was making everyone else happy, too, with his good spirit and his silly humor. While Simon was in the water, I read, took some sun, or chatted with the crew. Simon and I never said that we were a photographer and a model -- we were happy to leave our public lives behind.
We became friendly with a Swedish couple, who at one point came over to us carrying a Swedish magazine. "Isn't this you?" they asked, opening to a full-page photo. I had to admit that it was. You can't keep a secret even in a boat in a harbor in Thailand. Although the others learned that we were a model and photographer, nobody bothered us; it was a very casual time. In between dives we went snorkeling or swimming in the bay. Diving or snorkeling, everyone gets excited about what they've seen. Simon was bubbling over with details about his undersea adventures.
The second night, Simon and I sneakily went up on deck, climbed into a hammock, and slept out under the stars. It was a beautiful experience. Really all we did on that boat was eat, sleep, scuba dive, sunbathe, and make love. It's the best holiday you can imagine.
On the last morning, December 24, one of the instructors came out on deck wearing a white beard, a red suit and hat, and full scuba gear. Santa Claus had joined the dive! I took a picture of him and planned to send it to friends as a Christmas card. After lunch we sailed back to Khao Lak and disembarked.
We returned to the diving center, where we dropped off the equipment and exchanged addresses and telephone numbers with the others. Simon and I went back to the Orchid Hotel. We were given a different bungalow, same layout and still on the beach, but this little house was in the second row. Instead of overlooking the ocean, our room overlooked the pool.
Before dinner that night Simon and I went to an Internet café. The connections were so bad I couldn't send individual messages, so I e-mailed a group message, something that I'd never done before. I couldn't put the picture of the scuba Santa on the e-mail, so I just wrote "Merry Christmas." We left the café and returned to the hotel for dinner. It was a hilarious evening. People wore silly hats, and there were balloons to blow up and funny competitions for the children, as well as a magician doing his tricks. This was Christmas Eve Thai-style, easy and delightful.
The next morning, Christmas, we woke up late, and went to the beach, where we spent the day. We swam, we read, and we played. We found a coconut and tossed it around like a football. We took a stick and played tic-tac-toe and hangman in the sand. Everything was laid-back; we were like kids. We sat on the beach in the late afternoon talking about the future. I asked Simon what his wishes were now, what he wanted to accomplish next. He thought a moment and then answered.
"Everything I dreamed of doing, I've done. I think I've achieved all my goals."
Just before dinner we called our family and friends. Simon spoke to his mother and his sister, Jodi. He told them how much he loved Thailand and how much he loved them.
"I'm so happy," he said, "and I'm so in love." He looked at me with his beautiful blue eyes and handed me the phone.
"You should see Siddy," I said. Siddy was Simon's nickname. "His eyes are shining."
That night we had dinner on the beach on plastic tables underneath a roof of palm leaves. There was a barbecue pit made from half a tin drum. We had fresh fish grilled with delicious Thai spices, chicken satay on skewers with delectable peanut sauce, and many varieties of vegetables and fruits. I've dined in five-star restaurants around the world, but none were better than this feast.
After the meal we sat at the plastic table and talked by candlelight. We looked out at the ocean and at the stars shining in the dark sky. I brought up the subject of children, and for the first time, we spoke about how many we would have together. We decided that we'd have two and adopt at least one. We had been talking about marriage for a while, and Simon had asked me for a signal to let him know he could propose. We established that when I started talking about children, it would be an indication that I was ready for marriage. Children became our "c"-word. It wasn't a question of "commitment"; it was a matter of timing. I wanted to continue my modeling for a while. Whenever I talked about children, and the subject came up often because I adore them, Simon would smile and say, "Be careful, Petra, that's the forbidden word." That evening he didn't say anything. It was a confirmation that both of us were ready.
We went back to our little bungalow, where we curled up together on the bed and watched movies. Because I grew up under a communist regime and was unfamiliar with Hollywood films, Simon was giving me a crash course in great old movies. One of my presents was a DVD of White Christmas. We put it on and cuddled. We saw about a quarter of the movie before we turned out the lights and fell asleep in each other's arms.
At 7:30 the next morning Simon woke me with soft kisses.
"Do you want to finish the movie or go for a walk on the beach?" he asked.
"Let's watch for half an hour, then we can go to the beach."
We turned on the TV and watched, cuddling and spooning. We didn't watch it all because we wanted to go for an early morning stroll, something that we hadn't yet done. We got dressed, left the bungalow, and headed toward the water. How beautiful and still the morning was! The warm sunshine kept us company as we walked along the beach. The tide was quite low. I knew there was a full moon around that time and that the moon moves the waters around the world, so I didn't pay much attention.
Every so often, we would start to sing "Sisters, Sisters" from the movie. Lucky for us, no one else was on the beach, because we were the worst singers. We took a brisk walk and then went back to the bungalow. We were leaving in two hours for Koh Lanta, our final Thai destination. Simon went into the bathroom, and I started to pack. I was wearing a bathing suit and standing with my right side toward the window.
What did I hear first?
I think it was the screams. Hideous shrieks filled the air. Out of the corner of my eye I saw people running. I put my head up and looked out. Men, women, and children were dashing helter-skelter, some jumping into the pool—there was no concept of running in one direction. Next came steady ear-splitting, crack-cracking thunderclaps of hideous noise as bungalows, buildings, everything crumbled before the onslaught of flooding waters. One minute I was packing a suitcase, the next second I was fighting for my life.
That's how fast it was.
Released from under the thick layer of accumulated trash, I was back in the rushing current. I had to find something permanent to hold on to. Ahead of me, I saw a palm tree sticking out of the water.
Okay, I have to catch it. I have to catch it, I said to myself, or maybe aloud.
No use. I swept by the tree so quickly I couldn't even touch it. No time for despair, another tree was in my path.
Again, try again. Get your arms out!
As the debris-choked water rushed me past the tree, I grabbed at a branch, curled my fingers around it, and held on with every bit of strength I had. It was enough. The waters rushed on. I stayed and began to pull myself closer to the tree. The water was below my chest, and I could feel another branch beneath my feet. I tried to stand on it. It was too painful. I couldn't do it. I hung on to the upper branch trying not to get pulled away by the current and at the same time, trying different positions to relieve my agony. By the intensity of the pain, I knew bones were broken. I maneuvered my back toward the tree trunk in order to brace myself against it and let my legs float out in front. I managed to hold this position, and it did ease the pain. The water, which had caused all this horror, was now helping by cushioning my body.
It didn't last. A couple of hours later the floodwaters started to recede; my legs were no longer being supported. As they lowered down, the pain became more intense. I had to keep moving my body to find the most comfortable position, and at the same time, I had to make sure my legs didn't get trapped by the debris. I lay down on the branch with my legs stretched out. Every movement brought excruciating pain. The air was full of horrible sounds, crashing, smashing, violent sounds. I was terrified that they meant another wave was coming. I heard the tree cracking, and for a moment I thought that the weight of the trash surrounding me would cause the tree to collapse and take me under the water again.
Dear God, I prayed, please, dear God, don't let another wave come.
I looked around. I couldn't see anything -- a jumble of floating objects blocked my vision -- but I could hear people crying out. Two women were on a tree behind me. I knew there were two because one was speaking English, the other was speaking Thai. They were screaming for help. In the distance I heard a child crying; after a half hour or so, the crying stopped. I was thinking of all the people, of Simon, and I was sending energy to them, praying for them, and hoping for the best. It helped me to stay focused.
Time passed. The sky stayed blue, and the sun beat down. Cuts and scratches covered my arms and legs, none of them very deep. Even so, the water was bloody around me. I thought I must have been having internal bleeding, but I put it out of my mind. For many hours the water steadily lowered. I eased myself down with the water, staying on top of it to help soften the pain. I kept splashing water in my face so I wouldn't faint. I know I must have drifted off quite a few times. Once, I was brought back into consciousness by a tickling, pinching sensation on my left leg. I looked down and saw a little crab crawling around my ankle. I couldn't reach it because I couldn't move, so I broke off a branch from the tree and tried to get the crab onto it. I wanted to set him down somewhere where he could crawl. Every creature has a right to live, even a little crab.
As the water receded, I saw that a patch of mud had formed below me and I tried to get on it. I hung on to the tree branch and began lowering myself. The stabs of pain stopped me. I couldn't do it. I passed out. The sun woke me. It was so very strong. My whole body was hot, and the scratches were stinging. I splashed water on myself, that filthy black water. I put my head down and passed out again. When I awoke, I saw that the water had gone down so far I couldn't reach it anymore -- nothing to ease the stings of my flesh. It was now getting toward evening. Soon the sun would go down. The day had been filled with the sounds of people crying and screaming for help. I didn't call out. I knew that screaming wouldn't help, and I had to save my energy. Did anyone know we were there? Even the helicopters that eventually flew over went off quickly. I remember thinking there must be many people worse off, so the helicopters should go where they were most needed.
It was around 6:00 p.m. when I heard different kinds of calls. "Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello."
These weren't cries for help; they were cries of help.
The others around me began screaming, "Here! I'm here!"
"Here, I'm here!" I was screaming, too.
In the distance I saw two Thai men pushing their way through the chest-high water toward me.
"I'm here! I'm here!"
They reached me, and I was so happy I burst into tears.
"Kop Khun Kha, Kop Khun Kha. Thank you. Thank you for coming," I cried.
The men bowed and smiled. They didn't speak English. One man opened a can of juice for me. It had been nearly eight hours since I'd had anything to drink. I was lying flat out and couldn't sit, so he helped me swallow by holding my head up. The other man was wearing swimming trunks with swimming shorts over them. He took off the outer pair and tried to slip them over my legs. I had forgotten my nakedness.
"I can't. Thank you, I can't put them on," I told him. "I can't move my legs."
The poor man was trying so hard to cover me. And I was so not caring about it. He stopped his attempt to clothe me and laid the shorts over my lap. I pointed to my pelvis. "Broken, broken."
Both men nodded their heads, their faces full of compassion. How brave these men were to put others' safety ahead of their own and to come back into the ever-threatening danger. I soon learned that many people were doing the same thing. Again the men tried to help me up. I screamed.
"I can't sit up."
One of them motioned with his hands, asking if he could give me a piggyback ride.
"No, no, no," I cried. "Not possible. Too painful, too painful."
They looked at each other and then at me. I understood that they could do no more; they would have to go and bring back more help -- at least I hoped they would. I motioned to the man who had covered me with his shorts, asking if I could have his T-shirt. Immediately, he took it off and tried to put it on me. I shook my head. "No, no." I didn't want to wear it, I wanted to use it. The water had gone so low, I couldn't reach it with my arm anymore.
I took the shirt, let it fall into the dirty water, and then drew the dripping cloth up to my face. It felt so good, so refreshing, that filthy water. The men bowed and went off. I dropped the shirt again, pulled it up, and rubbed the dripping cloth over my neck, my breasts, and my arms. On my right wrist, muddied and shredded, was the bracelet from the Chiang Mai temple. I lay back, put the wet shirt over my face and chest, and closed my eyes. I read once that when people are dying, their whole life is flashing before them. I wasn't so sure I was dying, but while I waited, and prayed for help to return—for both myself and all the others—I began to think about Simon first and then my mother, my father, my sister, my grandfather, my grandmothers, my friends... my work. I believe that there is a pattern to life, and lying there, cradled in the palm tree, I could see how what had gone before in my life was making it possible for me to survive.