Disney alligator attack: Toddler's body found, says source

By Katie Mettler, Elahe Izadi

The body of a 2-year-old boy snatched by an alligator at a Disney resort in Florida has been found.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said formal identification is pending but "there is no reason to believe that the body that was recovered is not that of" the toddler.

The toddler's parents watched Tuesday night as the alligator grabbed their son and dragged him deeper into the water, officials said. The father, who was not identified, rushed in and grabbed desperately for his son; he cut his hand but was unable to save the boy.

The attack happened on the third night of the Nebraska family's holiday. They relaxed on the white sandy beach that stretches along Disney's luxe Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, one of the features the hotel uses to entice its guests, and watched their young son wade ankle-deep into the man-made lake known by holidaymakers as Seven Seas Lagoon.

The boy was just about 30cm beyond the sand when, after 9pm, the alligator attacked.

More than 50 staff from Disney World, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission searched the lagoon in helicopters and boats for the toddler.

Divers from the sheriff's office searched the water and investigators used sonar technology to try to find the boy.

The search was complicated because the lagoon was man-made and there were "systems built in the waterway", Demings said.

Alligators are indigenous to Florida, but an attack is rare. It has never happened in Disney's 45 years of operating in the state, Demings said.

Disney closed all beach areas and recreational marinas in its resort, although the Disney World theme parks were open.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers search for the body of the toddler. Photo / AP
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers search for the body of the toddler. Photo / AP

The Florida resort did not have signs warning of alligators in the water, and the company will "thoroughly review the situation for the future", according to a Disney official.

Trappers had caught and euthanised four alligators, none of whom were believed to have snatched the boy. They later investigated a fifth alligator.

As rescuers searched through the night, Demings said his crews would not leave until they found the child.

After 15 hours of searching, officials switched to recovery mode, as Demings said the situation was not "survivable at this point".

Grief counsellors and victim advocates sat with the family throughout the night. Their grief was incomprehensible, said sheriff's office spokesman Jeff Williamson.

The beach area where the boy was snatched.
The beach area where the boy was snatched.

"They are very shaken up, extremely shaken up," he told reporters. "Imagine if it were you? What would you be?"

Although alligator attacks are rare in Florida, this case - inside Disney World, involving a very young child - seemed to hit all involved especially hard. Williamson said many of the law enforcement officers on scene have children of their own and feel deeply empathetic for the boy's parents, who witnessed the entire attack.

"It is tragic. It is heartbreaking. There's no other way to say it," he said. "I cannot come to grips with what it must have been like to be in that situation."

Witnesses who were nearby when the alligator snatched the boy gave law enforcement "detailed" information about what happened, but at an earlier news conference, Demings did not recount specifically what they said.

One witness dialed 911 at 9:16 p.m., Demings said. The mother and father, who at different points both ran into the water after the child, shouted for the help of a nearby lifeguard.

"The parents diligently tried to get the child," Demings said.


Demings said that, according to witnesses, the family had set up a baby pen about 20 to 30 yards from the water on the sand, reported CNN. With the parents and 2-year-old boy was a daughter, who is 4, the network reported. A witness told CNN that a movie was being screened on the beach Tuesday night.

There were no other people in the water at the time of the attack, according to authorities. Signs posted near the lake warn against swimming in it, but there were no signs warning of alligators. The sheriff said there had been no recent reports of any nuisance alligators in the area, but questions about their presence in the lake will be part of the ongoing investigation.

The gator that got the child, Demings said, was reported to be somewhere between four and seven feet in length.

"As a father, as a grandfather, we're going to hope for the best in these circumstances," the sheriff said. "But based upon my 35 years of law enforcement experience, we know we have some challenges ahead."

Florida hosts the largest alligator population in the United States and made the creature its official state reptile in 1987, according to the National Zoo. An estimated 1.3 million to 2 million gators live across all 67 counties in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2013, and inhabit fresh water marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes across the state.

Despite that, Wiley emphasized Wednesday that alligator attacks are an "extremely rare occurrence."
"Millions of people enjoy Florida safely," he said. "But you have to be careful."

Since 1948, 383 people in Florida have suffered alligator bites, according to Florida FWC records. Twenty-three of those attacks were fatal. Last year, one person was killed by an alligator, and before that, the last recorded fatality was in 2007.

Alligators and crocodiles have jaws strong enough to crack a turtle shell, according to the National Zoo, and prey on fish, snails, birds, frogs and "mammals that come to the water's edge." Their vise-like grip is nearly impossible to escape because the animals perform a spinning move, called the "death roll," to drown and subdue their prey.

Officials told reporters that, according to records, this was the first alligator attack at Disney. Wiley said the Florida FWC works closely with the theme park to remove any "nuisance alligators," or gators that are at least four feet in length and could pose a threat to people, pets or property,according to the Florida FWC website.

Wiley didn't know how often his agency removes nuisance gators from the park, and he wasn't able to provide an estimate for how many live in the waters on Disney property.

"Everyone here at the Walt Disney World resort is devastated by this tragic accident," a Disney official told reporters Wednesday. "Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement."

The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is nestled among Disney's sprawling complex, positioned just south of the Magic Kingdom theme park in the Orlando area. It stretches along the west side of the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made lake that park visitors cross on ferries en route to the Magic Kingdom.

"Victorian elegance meets modern sophistication at this lavish bayside Resort hotel," reads the Grand Floridian description online. "Relax in the sumptuous lobby as the live orchestra plays ragtime, jazz and popular Disney tunes. Bask on the white-sand beach, indulge in a luxurious massage and watch the fireworks light up the sky over Cinderella Castle."

A.J. Jain and his wife, resort guests from Georgia, were on the same beach with friends near the scene of the attack Tuesday night, reported the Orlando Sentinel.

"I'm just here to say a prayer," Jain said. "I can't imagine what those parents are going through. It's been one tough week in Orlando."

This attack is the third tragedy to strike the Orlando area in less than a week. Last Friday, 22-year-old Christina Grimmie, a former finalist on NBC's "The Voice," was shot and killed by a deranged fanwhile signing autographs after a concert in the city. Less than 48 hours later, 49 people were massacred and 53 were wounded inside an Orlando gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

"We're doing our best to deal with all of the situations we have going on here," Demings told reporters early Wednesday. "Our staff is very resilient, and tonight they're very focused, if you will, on assisting this family."

- Washington Post

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