Alexander Tamargo/Getty
Caitlin Keating
December 26, 2014 07:20 PM

Ten years ago, model Petra Nemcova was hit by a tsunami while on vacation with her boyfriend in Thailand.

Swept out to sea by a wall of water on Dec. 26, 2004, she clung onto a palm beach tree for almost eight hours.

Nemcova, who suffered internal injuries and a shattered pelvis, was one of the lucky ones.

Her boyfriend, photographer Simon Atlee, and more than 200,000 people in 14 countries died in one of the deadliest tsunamis in modern history.

“I never knew what a tsunami was,” she told NBC News as she revisited the beach town of Khao Lak, Thailand, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy. “I never heard the word before – never.”

Remembering the cries for help as she clung to that palm tree, Nemcova founded the Happy Hearts Charity, which has rebuilt more than 105 schools in areas impacted by natural disasters.

Surviving the tragedy “gave me the drive to help children every day since, because that day I didn’t have a choice and now I have a choice,” she said.

“The tsunami has given me many gifts and one of them has been consciousness of how lucky I am,” she added.

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