Petra Nemcova was
drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. Hanging
from a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was. "I was
being sucked down into the water," she says. "Each time, for two or
three minutes. I realized, I'm going now. It's over. This is how I die. I let
it go. I stopped fighting, and it was pure bliss."
In a way, death
would have been a relief. When the tsunami hit the beach of Phuket, Thailand,
it swept the 25-year-old Czech supermodel and her boyfriend, British
photographer Simon Atlee, out to sea. But then it sucked them back in and
deposited them in all the debris it had raked up--metal posts and doors and
cars. And one of these things slammed hard into Nemcova, shattering her pelvis,
ripping her swimsuit off and tearing the love of her life away forever.
lives out of her day planner, but, she says, "Simon taught me to live in
the moment. He said, 'Any two days off in a row? That's the weekend! We
celebrate!'" And they did, taking time to be together all over the
world--from Cape Town to Miami to Vermont. Finally, Nemcova had brought Simon
to her favorite place, Phuket. But now she was watching him die while he
screamed her name, not to be seen again until he was identified in a morgue by
DNA testing 69 days later.
She grabbed hold
of a floating bungalow roof, but the debris smashed her body over and over. The
pain was blinding. And that's when the water overcame her. "I stopped
fighting," she says. "And as soon as I let go, I saw the blue sky
toward a palm tree and grabbed it. She held on for eight hours that you just
can't imagine--repeatedly fainting from the pain and dehydration (the hot sun
scorching the gashes in her body, the waves pushing her under trash again and
again), seeing nobody but hearing screams. Finally, two Thai men pulled her
out, got her on a floating car door and paddled her to the hospital.
And that's when
it got worse. "I was in such pain, even the morphine would only last for an
hour and a half," says Nemcova. And it wasn't black water drowning her now,
it was her grief over Atlee. What could she grab hold of?
Finally, on New
Year's Eve, her doctor shook her out of it. "You must not drift into
sorrow!" he said. "You must not dwell on the pain and the grief! Think
of anything! Anything!"
She thought of a
beautiful flower, and felt better. She thought of sunshine, and felt better.
Within a day the pain diminished. As the months went by, she began to
experience as much beauty as pain. Soon, she saw the duality of all things.
Take the tsunami.
"It was horrifying, but it also brought so much love," she says.
"It brought so many people together. The world is a more unified place now.
People reached out from all over the world. People are helping each other.
There's more sense of connection now."
She sees it in
herself, too. "I used to think, All these models worrying about this
wrinkle or that tiny ounce of fat. Why am I doing this? What's the
meaning?" But now she sees it. A percentage of her income--including her
work for this issue--goes to the foundation she started for orphaned Thai
children: the Happy Hearts Fund. Nemcova has one of those, too, now--a happy
heart. But, yeah, she has flashbacks. She'll be at some shoot, posing on some
beach, and suddenly she will be flung back there, into hell. Simon's face. The
palm tree. The screams.