September 25, 2006 12:00 PM

This is her home now, the vast halls and sterile rooms of Vienna General Hospital—hardly ideal but still a huge upgrade from the windowless cell where she was held captive for eight years. It is here that a team of doctors monitor her condition and where family members who believed she was dead marvel at her poise. And here, too, where Natascha Kampusch, 18, made her first friends as an adult. “There are suicidal and anorexia patients here,” Kampusch said two weeks after her stunning escape to freedom, “and I get along well with all of them because I can empathize with them.”

Her kinship with the sick and broken says a great deal about Kampusch, the girl whose youth was stolen away. Her dramatic return on Aug. 23 piqued interest worldwide, and in interviews last week with the Austrian national television broadcaster ORF, the newspaper Krone Zeitung and the magazine News she spoke publicly for the first time—about her captivity, about the abductor who threw himself under a train shortly after her escape and about the future. Throughout she seemed poised, confident. Yet psychiatrists say they saw disturbing signs of turmoil (see box).

Kampusch was just 10 years old on March 2, 1998, when Wolfgang Priklopil, a 36-year-old telecom technician, stopped her on her way to school and yanked her into his minibus. “I tried to scream,” she said, but “no sound came out.” Her abduction sparked the biggest missing-persons search in Austrian history. Seven hundred vehicles matching the description of the minibus were tracked and their owners interviewed—including Priklopil, whom police found “completely respectable” and dismissed.

But in fact, Priklopil had Kampusch locked in a 6-ft.-by-10-ft. underground room he had built under the garage in his house in Strasshof, only 10 miles from her Vienna home. She spent most of the next eight years in that room by herself. “I had claustrophobic feelings …,” she said. “It was really harrowing…. I kept thinking I couldn’t possibly have been born into this world just to let myself be locked away and allow my life to be ruined.”

Kampusch stopped short of saying Priklopil sexually abused her (police suggested she might have been). But she did say he treated her like a slave, forcing her to do chores and withholding food to assert control. Eventually he allowed her to read or watch TV with him in the house, though never when his mother visited. Priklopil even took her on shopping trips, during which she tried to signal people with her eyes. “[But] if I had made any noise,” she said, “he would have killed the person or killed me.”

All the while, nothing seemed amiss to neighbors. “He was a very tidy man,” recalls Georgine Malik, 62, who lived around the corner. “In the winter, he even helped elderly residents shovel their snow.” Several neighbors recall seeing Kampusch out with Priklopil, but none knew him well enough to ask about the girl. “I saw them walking down the main street once,” says Christa Stefan, 61. “She looked very young but seemed to be in a good mood.” Some neighbors referred to Priklopil’s home as Fort Knox because of his elaborate alarm system, but they knew he was fascinated with electronics so thought nothing of it.

In interviews Kampusch described her captor as paranoid and insecure. Sometimes, she said, “I dreamt of chopping his head off.” But mainly she sustained herself by plotting her escape. She said that when she was 12, “I made a pact with my future self that the day would come [when] that 12-year-old girl would be freed.”

Kampusch was vacuuming Priklopil’s BMW 850i in his garage when that day finally came. It was 12:53 p.m. when she noticed him walk away to take a cell-phone call. She left the vacuum running and dashed away. “I climbed over the fences of different gardens in a panic, like in an action film,” she said. She spotted an elderly woman in her kitchen, knocked on the window and told her, “I am Natascha Kampusch.”

The woman called police, who came to get her and later confirmed her identity with a DNA test. Her parents, Brigitta Sirny, 56, who works for a group that helps the elderly, and father, Ludwig Koch, 51, a baker, rushed to the police station to see her. But perhaps because of her absence or perhaps because the couple had split before she was abducted, the reunion was tense and awkward. The “more they cried and embraced me and hugged me … in that moment … I felt a little overwhelmed and a little cramped,” Kampusch said. Still, she insisted, “I love my parents.”

Today, Kampusch wrestles with a host of tangled and complex emotions—guilt over Priklopil’s suicide, frustration that people thought she was dead, anger at being deprived of basic human contact. But she is also bursting with plans. She wants to take a train trip with her sister, go on a cruise with her mother, finish school, write a book. “I am overcome by the thought of freedom,” she said. And, hoping that some good might come from her struggle, she asked her legal representatives to create the Natascha Kampusch Foundation, which will help starving children as well as search for abducted women—”people,” she said, “who have disappeared and have never been found, like me.”

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