Updated: May 5, 2021
On 1st August, 2001, my life changed like never before. My fiance, Martin "Herbie" Bognermayr, creative soul, musician and very special person who was my dream, became my angel...
"Although your fire has been blown out, you will never die; be it through me, your spirit or these words of love, I know you'll be nearby."
I got in from shopping at about 4.30 in the afternoon and there was still no text message from Herb to tell me that he'd had a safe dive and he'd never forgotten before. I texted him just to remind him that he should get in touch so that I knew he was OK. There was no reply, but then one of his sister's called to be picked up from down the road and I guessed he'd write by the time I got back. She lives in a flat not far away, so I went to fetch her and came back to hear my mobile ringing up in our flat. I ran up the endless number of stairs again, thinking it was Herb - instead his diving partner was on the line.
"Nikki, is that you. There's been an accident." A normally, very recognisable voice sounded like a stranger's. I thought I'd understood, but that couldn't be true. I started to breathe very heavily, my heart was pounding, it was about to explode. I began to shake, feel nervous, feel scared, more scared than I have ever been in my life.
"Wer spricht, bitte? Who's speaking?" "It's me. Are you by yourself?" "No, Anna's here (the sister)." "There's been an accident and they can't find Martin. They're still looking for him. Don't worry. It's going to be OK!" "Are you OK? Are the others hurt?"
How could I have asked about the others in that situation? I can't remember much more about the words which were spoken. I can only feel the shivers which ran up and down my spine and continue to do so when I think of that phone call. Although his words were swimming around in my head like an echo "It's going to be OK, it's going to be OK," the sheer terror and panic in his voice had said everything that needed to be said.
I shouted for Anna in a tone of voice very similar to the one on the phone and she came running up the stairs. "There's been an accident and they can't find Herbie." I sat down, I stood up, I sat down again and lit a cigarette. "This can't be true, this can't be happening," I repeated over and over again. "Not to Herb, not to my babe." "My babe." I had started calling him my babe in the last few months and that was what he was. I started to breathe so quickly that I couldn't get any oxygen. Was this how Herb had felt under water? The tears started streaming down my face, but there was no sound; just the erratic breathing of Anna and I inhaling on our cigarettes. My legs were like jelly, my mind was spinning and then we heard the downstairs door open as the mother and the other sister came home. I waited until they reached the middle floor and went down, telling them to take a seat before I said anymore. "Mary, there's been an accident. I've just had a phone call and they can't find Herbie..."
1st August, 2001. Herbie lost his life. I lost the most wonderful man I'd ever met and a part of my heart. Mary lost a son she depended on, especially after her husband's death. The sisters, the rest of the family and his friends lost a very special person. The world lost a musical and creative talent which was already developing into something so great. Herb had left us and I can only think of a gleaming white soul up there in the universe starting his new life.
As soon as I'd got the call, I texted my sister in England. "There's been a diving accident and they can't find Herb. Will keep you informed."
One of Herbie's Aunts called and she had bought an afternoon edition of a local newspaper. She'd read an article "Diving Accident at Attersee" which went something like this. "Four divers from Linz were injured today in an accident in the lake of Attersee. One is still reported missing." She'd thought about the possibility of it being Herb, but it couldn't have been, things like this don't happen to "normal" people and she'd brushed the idea aside; Reality began to sink in. Then a police car turned up in front of the house. This nightmare was actually starting to be real. We went outside and two officers stepped out, I howled; Mary and the two girls were also outside and the police officers repeated what we already knew. There'd been an accident. The possibilities of finding him were slim and he would be running dangerously low on oxygen if still conscious. I then told Mary and the others about our conversation from the night before and that we'd finally planned our wedding. Less than 24 hours later we were talking about his death.
I walked away and went inside the house. I called a friend to get the mobile numbers of two of the other guys who were also diving, I then called them, leaving desperate messages on their answer machines. Why were all of their mobiles turned off? Why wasn't anyone telling us anything? How deep had Herb and the others been diving? How much oxygen had he had? There were so many questions and no answers; No one could give us any answers at that time, so we had to wait... It was as though his family and I were about to step out on to the green mile; the walk of death. I textedd Herbie in a desperate plea not to leave me. "Please don't leave me. Not yet. I love you so much…" It didn't help. I respectfully went back outside to say thank you to the officers and goodbye. They left.
I've never passed out in my life before, but I was close now. I went back inside and stood in the dining room leaning against the door with my head spinning, still breathing heavily and then wrote back to my sister. "They're still looking for him and it doesn't look good..."
I don't know what order things happened in next. I called a friend who immediately offered to come around. It wasn't necessary I told her. This can't be true… I was still trying to desperately get in touch with the other three who had been diving with Herb but there was no reply. The police came back about an hour later to say that they were calling off the search due to the lack of light and would commence again on the following day.
Herb was classified dead.
Thoughts of his Dad's (Hubert Bognermayr), death came flooding back into my mind. I remember immediately after he'd died my sister called me and asked if there was anything she could do, hysterically, I answered "Bring him back, just bring him back." They were the only words I could think of now, "Bring him back. PLEASE GOD, just bring him back."
I called my friend Rose back and asked her to come around and I lay on the sofa in our lounge upstairs, clutching onto one of Herbie's most recently worn T-shirt's, smelling it and frantically praying that none of this could be true. "My babe..." The babe I wanted to wrap up in cotton wool and protect for the rest of my life was dead. The babe who had protected me was gone. The babe who promised he would never leave me alone had left me totally alone. He'd gone to what I can only hope is a better place.. My heart aches writing this, but my heart broke on 1st August, 2001.
Herb's mother came up to try to speak to me; I had shut myself away in a mental dream. A dream of disbelief, a dream of our wedding, with eyes blindly focussed on nothing I couldn't answer her. I couldn't reply to anyone. I'd shut myself off and was with Herb. How could I live without him? We'd so often talked about his death. I'd so often cried about his death. Whether it was to do with his Dad dying, too much love or a kind of premonition, I don't know. All I knew then was that I was hurting like I'd never hurt before and pray will never have to in the future.
My friend turned up and arrived at the same time as one of Herb's cousin's. She'd driven here in such a hurried state; she'd nearly knocked him off his bike as they'd turned into the driveway. She sat with me and comforted me for a while. I called my sister and she arranged to go to my parents and break the news to them so I wouldn't have to tell them directly on the phone. I didn't have the strength anyway. I tried to sob, for a few minutes I could, but then why should I? It was tragic, but I couldn't really cry over something which couldn't be true and over someone I had so much love for. This had to be a dream. Then, like others had told me before and others have told me since it happened, my friend said how jealous she had been of our relationship. How seldom it is to find your true love. Why was I only allowed six years of it? I now feel blessed to have been able to have had those 6 years, but at other times, I feel so angry that we weren't given any more time together. Whatever the small problems were in our relationship, we always had each other. In the six years we were together, we had had such an intense relationship and experienced so many positive and negative things which never had any affect on "us". "Nikki and Herb" were simply "Nikki and Herb." The only thing that could have come between us was death.
Rose and I went to sit with the others on the second floor and the mother was alone in the studio downstairs. I had to be practical and Herbie and I had often talked about me having his sperm if he died. I went down to see if she had any problems with it. I had no rights now because we weren't married and had to ask for her permission. She was thankfully fine about it. We sat there stroking the dog, stunned and numb. The youngest sister started crying bitterly, asking what this family had done to have both her Dad, her big brother and her two idols taken away. It was too much for me and I went back up to sit with the others, to try and let what had happened sink in. I don't think it ever will though.
I spent the night on the telephone, too scared to go to sleep because I was too scared to wake up and find out this wasn't a dream. What was the importance of sleep? What was the importance of food? What was the importance of being alive? My babe was gone. My sister arranged a flight to come out on the following day.
I went and had a shower at about 5.30 in the morning just as the sun was rising. I knew then that the most dangerous times for falling asleep had passed and I could start the new day feeling a numb tired which helped me to cope with things. The mother came up crying, tears of acceptance rolling down her cheeks and I remember feeling jealous that she was able to cry. From that moment on, the youngest sister became my permanent shadow over the next few weeks and although she sometimes drove me insane, she showed so much strength and courage for her just turned 20 years of age.
I needed to go to see where it had happened, I needed to get away from the endless telephone calls of repeating the same sentences again and again which were driving me insane and I needed to go to Herb. To be with him until they found his body. We'd never had any secrets or been apart before, so why start now? He'd have been there for me if it had been the other way round.
We drove down to where the accident had taken place to see it sectioned off and Herb's car still parked there. It was literally a two minute drive from his second home at his oldest friend's house in Attersee. The lake looked so peaceful and had given Herbie so many beautiful memories, it was difficult to imagine that his body was lying somewhere down there. I walked down to the water's edge and played with the surface of the water, tickling it gently to send ripples of hope travelling off into the distance; I said a prayer and looked towards the centre of the lake in pure disbelief. It must have only been a little after midday by then, the heat was poisonous on the back of the neck and we were all walking around in a dream-like state.
I took the keys to Herb's car and unlocked it. He'd bizarrely been given a parking ticket over night and I sat in the driver's seat, in Herb's seat. Everything was as it should have been except for his not being there. I picked up the papers and maps we'd left in the side of the door from our last holiday in Italy and I found his prized Quentin Tarantino T-shirt in the boot which still had his smell on it, together with all of his diving equipment. That T-shirt never left my side for the next few days.
After a round of Herb's favourite nut schnapps which I had always shared with him, (so I tipped half of mine on to the floor in the hope that he could taste it!), and considering the strength of the sun and not eating, I started to feel a bit dizzy, I went for a walk to find James who was on his way back to the pub and we sat down on the steps leading into a bank. People were coming and going and we were sitting there watching everything in slow motion. Me begging to be pregnant with Herb's child, but also laughing about Herb who could always make anyone smile and he was still able to do it even after his own death. We must have been there for about half an hour or so when Mark turned up (his best friend from Kindergarten). We carried on intensively talking about what we had liked and loved about him, funny stories, how he'd affected our lives, etc, but time was pushing on and they were due to start the search at 3.30; So, we went back to the others at the table, had one last drink and paid.
At the site of the search, the others were trying to be protective and hide me away so I wouldn't get upset, but I really didn't want that. As I've said, Herb would have been there for me and I was going to be there for him. As the 30 or so divers came to begin the search, they were given a prep by their instructor and I wanted to hear every word to find out what they were going to do. I stood at the back of the group of divers and listened whilst the others who had turned up were waiting higher up on the roadside. Herb would have been fascinated and would have been so proud to have been part of that group of rescuers and standing there, I felt stronger than I ever had in my life and so close to Herb that I thought my heart would explode with love. One of the other divers came to stand next to me, protect me and take me away, but I couldn't move. Tears fell from his eyes, but he had the choice to stay or go. How could I have gone when I knew in my heart that it was the right thing for me to do? The search began with the divers in formation holding on to a rope and it soon became clear that they weren't going to find him on that day... I felt so disappointed. It was such a waste of a life. I still couldn't cry, it was all turning into a farce. Herbie was dead and there was all this commotion about finding his body; Granted, it was better that they found him, as most corpses left in water will float back to the surface at some time in the future, but I just wanted it all to be over and then I could go home and wake up from this nightmare.
I was going through two main emotions, the one of total desperation where I couldn't relate to anyone, no one could understand what I was going through; he was my everything and I'd just lost our world and then, the other reaction of pure shock with thoughts like he's dead, that's that; We might as well drive home and get on with our lives. If only life was that easy… I couldn't understand what I was doing there, I was an on-looker and my emotions were totally numb. The others were obviously in shock too, they stood around hugging each other, giving each other strength and I still really felt as though this whole scenario was some kind of dream. I walked away to be by myself. They'd all go home afterwards to their partners or children and who would I go home to? A few hugs in a situation like this don't make things any better. We'd just arranged our wedding on the previous night before his death, he was the main reason for my being in Austria, he was my best friend, he even knew what I was thinking before I'd had the thought. They'd never forget him, but "normality" would return to their lives a lot sooner than it would to mine. Will I ever be the same again? Will I ever have "normality" again? The answer to the two questions is already clear. NO. I'm still Nikki and I'm still the same person, but I'll never be exactly the same again.
We stayed in Attersee until about 11.00 at night when the moon rose over the mountains behind us and then with a stomping headache, we were driven home. I dozed off in the car which felt like I was sitting next to Herb coming back from one of our visits to Attersee and I started to feel safe again and at ease.
On Friday, my emotions were released; my tear ducts were opened and it was like emptying a bottle of water into the sink or rather draining a canal into the sea. From the sunny days that we'd had, the weather had become oppressive and a storm was brewing. As the heavens began to open, I sat outside in the torrential rain and almost gale force winds; I sat there and could only believe they were Herbie's tears. He hadn't wanted to die. He wasn't ready to die. It was all just a terrible mistake. He was sad up there and he wanted us to know it.
An extract from some lyrics I wrote a few weeks later
"They say that time heals the pain, but this ache will never go; The tears from heaven as I stand in the rain pour down and with them you. Although your fire has been blown out your life will never die; Be it through me, your spirit or these words of love you'll always be nearby."
He lost his life in a tragic diving accident the night after we'd confirmed our wedding plans. After the four days spent searching for his body in Lake Attersee, Upper Austria and after planning his funeral (our wedding!) in the way he'd have liked it, we celebrated his life on 14th August with his music; he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. After trying to come to terms with his sudden death, I then faced the unexpected, but wished for news of finding out I was pregnant on the day of his funeral, which, like the news of his death, I couldn't fully accept. I was in a permanent state of shock and everything was happening too quickly. A short time later, I lost our child and at least after the operation, I was able to stay a bit longer in the hospital to collect my thoughts and try and find some sanity in this world which had before treated me so well. I started counselling and a mindful doctor prescribed me yoga classes...
If there was one thing for certain as to why I was born, it was for our love. He was my soul partner, best friend, lover, partner for life and father to our unborn child. My coming to Austria had been a dream since the age of 12 and I believe, for whatever reason, we were meant to find each other. Both Martin and his father, Hubert Bognermayr, were very special people.
I will never fully believe that Herbie died, I'll never believe that my soul partner has gone, I'll never believe that two such huge talents have been wasted and I'll never believe that I lost his child which we so desperately wanted. As one of Herbie's songs is entitled "The Spirit Lives Forever."