It should have been a dream vacation, a trip to the theme parks of Disney World to celebrate the start of the school summer break. But a family’s holiday at the so-called happiest place on Earth came to a horrifying end on Wednesday when the body of their two-year-old boy was recovered from a lake after he was snatched and dragged in by an alligator.
The father of the toddler fought with the animal, authorities said, but could do nothing except watch the alligator disappear back into the deep water with his son in its jaws.
On Wednesday afternoon, following an extensive 16-hour search and rescue effort by dozens of emergency personnel using sonar equipment, divers found and recovered the body of Lane Graves.
“There’s no question in my mind that the child was drowned by the alligator,” Orange County sheriff Jerry Demings had said at a 4.30pm press conference.
“It was a tough message to deliver to them. The family was distraught but somewhat relieved we were able to retrieve their son with his body intact.”
The boy was snatched at about 9.30pm on Tuesday evening from the shoreline of the Seven Seas Lagoon, an artificial lake at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, where the family, from Elkhorn, Nebraska, had been staying since Sunday. Guests had been enjoying an open-air movie and were watching fireworks from the nearby Magic Kingdom theme park when the alligator, estimated by officials at between four and seven feet, attacked.
Jeff Williamson, spokesman for the Orange County sheriff’s office, said the family, including the boy’s four-year-old sister, were on the shoreline at the resort’s lake, with the toddler wading at the edge of the water with his parents close by.
“He was about a foot in, maybe ankle-deep or a little higher,” Williamson said.
“There’s a sign there that says no swimming. There’s no indication he was doing that, but he was at the edge of the water and this freakish incident takes place in which a gator comes along and latches on to this poor child.
“The father was very close by. He heard what sounded like a splash, he turned, he thought the splash was something innocent, but of course there was nothing innocent. He saw his child in the mouth of the gator. He ran to get the child out of the gator’s mouth and wrestled with the gator but was not successful. The gator was able to get the child away from the father and disappear into the water.
“It is tragic. It is heartbreaking. There’s no other way to say it,” he said, adding that the father had sustained minor cuts to his arms, and that he believed the mother had also entered the water.
Demings said Disney officials had done “everything they can to make the family comfortable during this ordeal” and that a Catholic priest was present when he broke the news to the parents.
A Disney spokeswoman announced that the beaches at all resorts on its sprawling property were closing “out of an abundance of caution” until it was confirmed the alligator was captured.
“We are devastated by this tragic accident,” said Jacquee Wahler, director of communications for Walt Disney parks and resorts. “Our thoughts are with the family.”
Wildlife officials trapped and euthanised five alligators from the lake overnight, but there was no sign of the boy, according to Nick Wiley, executive director of theFlorida fish and wildlife conservation commission (FWC).
But he said that because the boy’s body was recovered intact and close to where he was last seen: “There’s a good chance we already have this alligator.”
The search operation involved 50 personnel from the FWC, sheriff’s office and Reedy Creek fire department, Demings said, using boats and helicopters.
Florida has more than one million wild alligators in its freshwater lakes, swamps and creeks, Wiley said, but Williamson suggested a family from another state would have had little reason to suspect any of the animals were in the lake or posed any kind of danger.
“This hotel has never had complaints of an alligator attack, or an alligator nuisance, whatsoever,” he said. “This beach has been there for a very long time. We’re treating this as an isolated incident.”
But he accepted that there were no signs alerting guests to the possibility of the presence of alligators. “The sign says no swimming. There’s no other sign,” he said.
Officials said it was the first alligator fatality at Disney in 45 years of operations. “We work very closely with Disney to remove nuisance alligators as they’re observed,” Wiley said. “We’ve got some really good professionals out there today. They know what they’re doing
The years 2014 and 2015 also each saw nine recorded incidents in which alligators engaged with humans, figures show, with many of the attacks resulting in injuries. In one of the most serious incidents, an Orlando woman, Rachel Lilienthal, 37, lost an arm in August 2015 while canoeing with her boyfriend on the Wekiva river.Alligator attacks on humans in Florida remain “very rare”, he said. There has been only one other fatality in the state since 2007, according to the commission’s figures. The body of swimmer James Okkerse, 61, was found face down in a lake at Blue Springs state park in Orange City, 30 miles north of Orlando, in October 2015. The medical examiner later determined that his wounds were caused by an alligator.
Wiley said: “We always caution people in Florida to be careful around water bodies, but millions of people enjoy Florida safely.
“It’s not common at all, in fact it’s very rare, for people to be attacked by alligators, in Florida or anywhere you find alligators,” he said. “We have alligators in all freshwater across Florida. They move around.”