'I took a chance and ran,' reveals teenager held in pit

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The Independent Online

Natascha Kampusch, the teenage Austrian girl who was kidnapped and held prisoner for eight years in a garage inspection pit, has said she managed to flee her captor because he could not stand the noise of a vacuum cleaner she had been ordered to use to remove the dust from his car.

Natascha, 18, was found wandering in the garden of a Vienna suburb on Wednesday looking "half-starved and pale" after she managed to escape the pit she had been held in since she was kidnapped while walking to school at the age of 10.

Her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, a 44-year-old communications technician, committed suicide by throwing himself under an express train at Vienna North station hours after her escape on Wednesday. He had been driving through the city in his red BMW in a frantic search for his captive.

Yesterday, Natascha revealed how she managed to escape her 6ft by 9ft underground prison beneath the garage at Priklopil's home in Vienna's Strasshof suburb. She told police that her captor had ordered her out of the pit and told her to vacuum clean his car.

The phone rang and Priklopil went to answer the call, moving away from the garage to avoid the noise of the vacuum cleaner, although he had left the door open. "I took a chance and ran," Natascha told police.

Sabine Freudenberger, a policewoman who interviewed Natascha after her escape, said she had been forced to call her captor "master" during the initial years of her captivity. She said Natascha had repeatedly implored Priklopil to let her free and had told him that she wanted to have a family and children. Priklopil rejected her pleas and had warned that "something would happen" to her and her family if she tried to escape.

Natascha, who was reunited with her parents on Wednesday, was reported to be too distressed to face the media yesterday.

Her parents said she was "emaciated" and that her skin was "completely white and covered with marks". Police said she had almost certainly been sexually abused by her captor. Natascha's father, Ludwig Koch, wept as he told Austrian television yesterday how he was reunited with his daughter. "Honestly, I didn't think I'd experience this," he said. "I always put the idea that she was dead out of my mind."

Natascha's prison, which contained a lavatory, books and a video recorder, was kept sealed by a steel door which could only be opened from outside. She said that for years, she had not been able to leave the pit and that only recently was she allowed out to do household chores. Although she described Priklopil as a "criminal", she insisted that "Wolfgang was always kind to me". Her remarks were taken yesterday as further evidence that she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition which results in hostages feeling sympathy for their kidnappers.

Her reappearance ended Austria's longest-running and most spectacular kidnapping case on record. But yesterday questions were raised about the police's failed attempts to track down her abductor and there was speculation that Priklopil may have had an accomplice who helped him to kidnap the girl.

Police admitted they had "lost contact" with an eyewitness who watched Natascha on the day of her kidnap in March 1998, when she was bundled into the back of a white van owned by Priklopil as she walked to school from her Vienna home. The witness, then a girl of 12, had told police that a second man had been driving. "We are not ruling out the possibility of a second man, we are investigating all possibilities," said Nikolaus Koch, a Vienna police spokesman.

After Natascha's kidnap, police questioned more than 700 white van owners throughout the country. It emerged yesterday that they had also interviewed Priklopil at the time but had failed to search his home because they were convinced by his story that he was using the van to transport building material.

Priklopil's neighbours said yesterday that his house, which was equipped with steel entrance gates, alarms and surveillance cameras, had been visited by council officials on several occasions as they were required to inspect the devices. "None of them realised that a girl was being kept prisoner inside," said one neighbour.

They also said that a local police station, which contained beat officers who knew the neighbourhood inside out, had been closed down while Natascha was held hostage.