Authorities are now focused on recovering the body of the 2-year-old boy snatched by an alligator at a Disney resort near Orlando, saying Wednesday that it’s highly unlikely the boy survived.
“There is no question we will lose the 2-year-old child,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said at a midday news conference. “It’s now been 15 hours since the child has been taken into the water. We are working on recovering the body of the child at this point.”
He added: “Our ultimate goal is to try and bring some closure to this family by bringing home their loved one.”
The toddler’s parents watched Tuesday night as the beast 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 occurred on the third night of vacation for the Nebraska family of four. 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 vacationers as Seven Seas Lagoon.
The boy was just about a foot beyond the sand when, after 9 p.m., an alligator attacked.
By early Wednesday morning, authorities from Disney World, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had deployed more than 50 law enforcement officers in helicopters and boats to the Seven Seas Lagoon, desperately searching for the missing toddler. Divers and trappers were on standby, officials said, and they were using sonar technology.
After nearly 15 hours of searching, authorities had still found no trace of the boy.
Disney closed all beach areas and recreational marinas in its resort, though the Disney World theme parks were open Wednesday.
By early morning, trappers had caught and euthanized four alligators, authorities said at a morning news conference. Wildlife officials said they had not yet found any evidence that the euthanized gators were responsible for snatching the boy. They later investigated a fifth alligator.
Despite the expansive bodies of water they were combing and the immense power and ruthlessness of the animal they were looking for, authorities said early Wednesday they were optimistic they’d find the boy – but were vague about whether they believed there was any chance he could have survived.
“I do not believe it’s a needle in a haystack,” said Florida FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley.
“We’re just going to keep searching and searching until we can’t search anymore,” sheriff’s office spokesman Jeff Williamson said.
As rescuers searched through the night, Demings, the sheriff, said his crews would not leave until they found the child. That remained the game plan by daybreak, when new crews of law enforcement officials arrived at the Disney complex to offer “fresh eyes” for the search.
Authorities did not release the names of the child or his parents, but said grief counselors and victim advocates sat with the family throughout the night. Their grief, Williamson said, was incomprehensible.
“They are very shaken up, extremely shaken up,” he told reporters. “Imagine if it were you? What would you be?”
Though 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 not 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 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. Only 23 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 actually 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 in route to the Magic Kingdom.
“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.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler, Elahe Izadi