Aug. 22, 2013 at 6:56 AM ET
Hannah Anderson spoke out Thursday for the first time since her abduction riveted the country, thanking her rescuers and offering an explanation for text messages and letters that she exchanged with her captor.
In an exclusive conversation with TODAY, Hannah, 16, expressed gratitude for support that came from around the world during a weeklong odyssey from abduction outside San Diego to rescue in the Idaho backcountry.
“In the beginning, I was a victim,” she said. “But now knowing everyone out there’s helping me, I consider myself a survivor instead.”
Hannah revealed that the texts she traded with captor James Lee DiMaggio were to make arrangements with DiMaggio, a family friend, to pick her up from cheerleading camp.
“And he didn’t know the address or what — like, where I was. So I had to tell him the address and tell him that I was gonna be in the gym and not in front of the school,” she said. “Just so he knew where to come get me.”
And she said she exchanged letters a year ago with DiMaggio because she and her mother weren’t getting along and DiMaggio helped her work through the turmoil.
“Me and him would talk about how to deal with it,” she said. “And I’d tell him how I felt about it. And he helped me through it. They weren’t anything bad. They’re just to help me through tough times.”
DiMaggio abducted the girl and rigged his own house to burst into flames, killing Hannah’s mother and little brother, on Aug. 3, authorities have said. DiMaggio died in a shootout with FBI agents in Idaho a week later after horseback riders spotted the two.
Hannah, who attends high school outside San Diego, told TODAY that she had no idea there was a nationwide search for her — in fact, she said, she had never heard of an Amber Alert.
“I know it helped people find me,” she said. “And it made them, like, realize that it’s hard to find people out there. But with everyone’s support, it can help a lot.”
The sharp eyes of the four horseback riders — one of whom called the sighting “one chance in a trillion” — led to her rescue from a place in Idaho called the River of No Return, 1,000 miles from home.
To them, she said: “I’d like to say thank you. Because without them, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
She extended her thanks to the sheriff, the FBI, other authorities and everyone else who put in time to find her.
“And my dad and my friends and my family and just all my supporters that helped spread the word in the news,” she said. “Because the news helped get out there fast.”
She spoke about her goals — saying she wants to be a firefighter for San Diego.
Hannah was reunited with her father after the rescue. Her family has denied suggestions that DiMaggio might have been the father of both her and her little brother, 8-year-old Ethan.
The denial came after a spokesman for DiMaggio’s family said that he left a $112,000 life insurance policy to Hannah and Ethan’s paternal grandmother. The spokesman said that DiMaggio’s family wants DNA tests to determine paternity.
San Diego police said earlier this week they will not reveal a motive for the double murder and kidnapping because they do not want to make Hannah a victim for a second time.
A memorial service is set Saturday for Hannah’s mother and brother and will be open to the public. The church, in the San Diego suburb of Santee, is bracing for an overflow crowd.
In the conversation with TODAY, Hannah struggled as she talked about her little brother — “He had a really big heart,” she said before breaking up with emotion — and said her mother instilled in her a strong spirit that is helping her through tough times.
She said she is trying to get her life back together as daughter, a dancer and a high school student, and wanted to set the record straight.
“You are who you are,” she said. “And — you shouldn’t let people change that. And you have your own opinion on yourself, and other people’s opinion shouldn't matter.”
The remarks with TODAY were Hannah’s first to a news organization. Days after the rescue, she wrote at length on a social-media site that allows people to ask and answer each other’s questions.
In that session, on the site Ask.fm, one questioner asked whether she was happier that DiMaggio was shot or whether she would have wanted to see him serve life in prison. She answered: “Shot him. He deserved what he got.”
She also said: “He had a gun and threatened to kill me and anyone who tried to help.”
Questioners from as far away as France and Hawaii showered Hannah with compliments about her physical appearance and asked her typical teenage questions about likes and dislikes.
She said, for example, that her favorite singer was Ke$ha, gave the name of her nail salon and said that if she could date anyone in the world it would be teen-heartthrob actor Zac Efron.
Some people on social media found her demeanor unusual, and even called her behavior fishy.
“I didn’t know people could be so cruel,” Hannah told TODAY.
She said social media is just how she talks to friends.
“I connect to them through Facebook, and Instagram is — it just helps me grieve, like, post pictures and to show how I’m feeling. And I’m a teenager. I’m gonna go on it.”
Hannah told TODAY that she wanted to speak before the funeral to offer thanks, to bring attention to Amber Alerts, and to put to rest speculation that she was anything other than a survivor.
She said that she will tell her entire story, but that now is not the time.
“This was a hard time,” she said. “And there’s gonna be harder times in life. But if I could get through this, I’m sure I can get through a lot more.”