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Petra Nemcova: Surviving the Tsunami, a Supermodel Hopes to Help Other Victims

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It’s a long way from the jet-setting life of an international model: At 11 a.m. each day, Petra Nemcova leaves her parents’ two-bedroom apartment in Karvina, a gray coalmining town in her native Czech Republic, and heads to a local pool for gentle water exercises. Walking with crutches, she hasn’t healed enough to begin physical therapy for the broken pelvis she suffered while clinging to a tree for eight hours in Phuket, Thailand, during the Dec. 26 tsunami in which her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, disappeared. But the 25-year-old doesn’t complain. “I still keep my pink glasses on,” she recently wrote to a friend. “I am trying to see the good things around and spread the love.”

In fact, she may soon put her career on hold to do just that. Friends and Nemcova’s father, Oldrich Nemec, told PEOPLE that once healed, Petra wants to devote herself to helping the child victims of the tsunami rather than return to work. “When you get a second chance,” says Nemec, 49, a bricklayer who took time off to cook his daughter model-worthy meals of lean meat and vegetables each day, “it means someone wants you to think differently.” (Her mother is a teacher.) Adds friend Karolina Bosakova, a Czech modeling agent: “Her view of modeling and all things material has changed.”

Nemcova and Atlee, who had been dating long-distance for two years (she lived in New York City, he in London), were vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami struck. She last saw him being swept out to sea but keeps pictures of him in the childhood bedroom where she sleeps and “is still hoping” against the odds, says her dad, that he will somehow turn up safe. In the meantime she plans to visit his family in London when well enough to travel. “One chapter has ended,” says Nemec. “Another one is starting.”