September 11, 2006 12:00 PM

On March 2, 1998, 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped off a Vienna street. She spent eight years locked in a 6-ft.-by-10-ft. windowless room under the garage of a suburban house, deprived of all human contact except for her abductor, a telecom technician named Wolfgang Priklopil. Finally last month she made a daring escape, resolving one of Austria’s most baffling criminal cases. Now, at 18, having survived what would seem to have been a living hell, Kampusch merely says, “My youth was different from the youth of others. But in principle, I don’t feel I missed anything.”

Authorities were amazed Kampusch, who had been captive just 12 miles from her parents’ home, seemed so poised and articulate in a written account that she released to the public on Aug. 28. “She is a very nice, smart woman,” says her lawyer Günter Harrich. Of Priklopil, 44, who committed suicide after her escape, throwing himself under a train, she wrote, “He was a part of my life, and this is why I am, in a way, mourning him.” Deflecting suggestions of sexual abuse, she said those details have “nothing to do with anybody else.”

Clearly, their home life was odd. She said he “rarely worked” and that she cooked and did chores. They spent hours watching TV and listening to radio. But if “Wolfgang,” as she called him, expected a passive hostage, “he had picked the wrong person. He was not my master; I was just as strong.”

On Aug. 23 Priklopil told her to vacuum his BMW. When he stepped away to make a phone call, Kampusch—who had never before fled because he’d threatened to kill her mother and father—took a chance. She left the vacuum on and, unheard amid the roar, fled to a neighbor’s. For her now-separated parents, it ends eight years of anguish and stubborn hope. Her father, Ludwig, 51, had given up his bakery to spend his days trying to find her. Her mother, Brigitta, 56, has reportedly undergone psychological counseling. “I opened my arms and … she said, ‘Mama,'” Brigitta said of their hospital reunion. “I left her bedroom exactly as it was when she vanished—it’s all there waiting for her.”

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