Model Recounts Horrifying Experience Being Swept Up by the Waves

ByABC News

March 8, 2005 -- -- Model Petra Nemcova says she still talks to boyfriend Simon Atlee -- months after the Indian Ocean tsunami nearly killed her and swept away the British photographer.

"I talk to Simon, I write to him," Nemcova told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in a special episode of "Primetime Live."

"I never used to write a diary. But now I'm writing a diary to him," she said. "I think it's not just me, but lots of others, family and friends, can still feel him around."

Nemcova, 25, and Atlee, 33, were in the Thai resort of Khao Lak on Dec. 26 when one of the deadliest tsunamis in modern history hit. Areas of Asia and Africa were flooded, and more than 200,000 people are believed to have died in the disaster.

Nemcova suffered a shattered pelvis and internal injuries. Atlee was missing and presumed dead for more than three months, until his body was found and formally identified on March 3.

The Czech beauty told Sawyer she thinks of Atlee daily. "His favorite saying was, 'The day without laughter is a day wasted,' " she said. "He was so kind and so respectful for people. He loved people. He loved life."

Nemcova said she still has nightmares about the experience: "Just water rolling and rolling, and when you close your eyes, just water."

She recounted for Sawyer the series of events that began with her boyfriend at her side, and ended with her clinging to a palm tree for dear life for nearly eight hours.

She and Atlee were in their bungalow when the first wave hit. People were running away and screaming, she said. "It was just so … surrealistic." Then the water flooded their bungalow and pulled them outside in seconds. "Simon was just saying, 'Petra, Petra, what's going on?' " she said.

Nemcova was swept into a current of debris. "In that moment, the power of the water was bringing all the fallen trees, all the broken buildings and all the wood. It was such a strong current, you couldn't do anything. You just had to go with it," she said.

The model didn't know that after that moment, she would never see the love of her life again. "He again screamed, 'Petra, Petra,' " Nemcova said. "It's the last time I saw him."

Nemcova soon realized her pelvis was broken, which disabled her legs and left her with only the use of her arms.

She said she felt her bones break many times. "I was just screaming from the top of my lungs. [The] power of the water … my left hip, it was pushing it and breaking it and breaking it and breaking it," she said.

She almost drowned. "You just start [to] swallow the black water … for one time, second time, and then it's actually … it was quite peaceful in that moment, because I thought, 'That's it. All right,' " she said. "It was just … very, very peaceful in a strange way."

But then she got her head above water. She remembers how happy she was to see the blue sky again.

She moved toward a partially submerged palm tree and clung to it. She watched people sweeping by her, many of them children. They were calling for help, but she could do nothing.

"I couldn't move my legs, I couldn't do anything. I wish I could so help," she said. "After half an hour, you didn't hear the children anymore. You didn't hear some of the people anymore."

Then the water levels began to drop, but that also increased her pain, because the water had been bracing her broken pelvis. She struggled to find support for her lower body in the trees branches, and thinks she fell asleep or passed out twice.

She worried about the scale of the disaster. She worried whether she would ever be found. "You don't know if you stayed there, for a few hours, for days. You have no idea," she said.

As the waves subsided, recovery efforts were initially chaotic. Two Thai men eventually rescued the former Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl.

"One of the Thai men was so sweet because actually the water took everything, what I had on," said Nemcova. "He just left me some clothes and I asked him, 'Can I get your T-shirt?' And so I got his T-shirt."

Nemcova said she admired the rescuers because they went to work despite not knowing the fates of their own families, and because they had no idea if another wave would come in and kill them too.

"In that moment, people were thinking about others, not about themselves," she said. "They were ready to sacrifice their lives. And most of them, they lost their babies. They lost their wives, they couldn't see them."

Nemcova was transported to a hospital. She was placed next to a Thai patient, who gave her a small Buddha she wears to this day. "He said, 'It will protect you,' " she said.

Nemcova is now walking with crutches, but she is expected to recover fully. The long convalescence gave Nemcova a chance to look for meaning in the disaster.

"When it happened, it brought families together, it brought the countries together, it brought the whole world together for a moment," she said.

Even when she was healthy enough to do so, Nemcova had trouble leaving Thailand because she was sure that her boyfriend's body would be found.

"I was hoping and having a big hope," she said. "But slowly you have to … when the days they go by, you have to realize that he will stay in our hearts all the time for forever."

She says the waiting was one of the hardest parts -- "not knowing if Simon's still somewhere and needs help."

Sawyer asked Nemcova what she would say to Atlee if she could. "There are lots of things which I would love to tell him, but in some way, I also feel that I lost the person closest to me. And I got second chance to live. So in a way I feel that I live for both of us and I will do my best," Nemcova said.

She has not said whether she will return to modeling. "In the moment, I live day by day."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events