ORLANDO — After 15 hours of searching a man-made lake at a Disney World resort hotel for a toddler snatched off the beach by an alligator, officials said Wednesday that the horrific ordeal was “not survivable” and they were now looking to recover the body of the 2-year-old.
The 7-to-8-foot reptile grabbed the boy late Tuesday as he was playing in about a foot of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian Hotel. His father, who quickly rushed to the boy’s aid, could not fend off the alligator and received minor injuries to his hand..
The boy’s mother also rushed into the water, but when the frantic couple was unable to save their son, they alerted a nearby lifeguard who called 911.
Some 50 wildlife specialists, including trained alligator trappers, shifted early Wednesday from a search and rescue effort to a recovery operation, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
“There were eyewitnesses who certainly saw the child taken under the water,” Demings told reporters. “We know that that happened and it is certainly not survivable at this point for him to have been submerged for that period of time.”
He said the dozens of searchers, divers and wildlife experts would continue the search as long as it takes.
“We are working on recovering the body of a child at this point,” the sheriff said. “We are trying to bring some closer (to the parents) by recovering their loved one.”
Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which spearheaded the search, said the American alligator was feeding and likely confused the small child for a dog or a raccoon. The gators do not typically feed on humans. “People – even small people – are not their typical prey,” he said.
The reptile grabbed the toddler Tuesday evening as the boy played in about a foot of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian Hotel with his father.
“The father entered the water, and he tried to grab the child, but was not successful in doing so,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told reporters at an early morning news conference.
Disney, meanwhile, said it had closed all beaches in its resort area “out of an abundance of caution.”
Searchers divided the lake into a grid pattern to look for the shine of alligator eyes in the dark and used sonar to scan the waters. Officials said the lake has several canals feeding into it, making the search trickier.
Officials said they removed five alligators from the lagoon but found no evidence of the child The reptiles will be euthanized to determine if they were involved in the incident.
Wildlife officials count around a dozen alligator bites a year in Florida, but fatalities from the reptiles are far less common. There have been only 23 fatalities caused by alligators in Florida since the 1940s, Wiley said. Tuesday’s incident is the first known alligator attack at the Seven Seas Lagoon, he said.
“They were probably attracted to some motion on the bank,” Wiley said. “That’s the way they stalk their prey.”
The mother, father and their three children, who are from Nebraska, have been staying at the hotel since Sunday, Demings said.
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The sheriff said he was “hopeful that we are able to locate the child in a reasonable period of time” but acknowledged there might not be a happy resolution to the search.
“As a father, as a grandfather, we’re going to hope for the best in these circumstances, but based on my 35 years of law enforcement experience we know that we have some challenges ahead of us at this time,” he said.
There are posted signs warning guests against swimming in the lake, Demings said.
“Everyone here at the Walt Disney World resort is devastated by this tragic accident,” Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said. “We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
The terrifying alligator attack at one of the world’s favorite family vacation destinations comes as the Orlando area reels from the mass shooting at a nightclub that claimed 49 lives early Sunday and the fatal shooting of singer Christina Grimmie at a concert late Friday.
“We’re doing our best to deal with all of the situations that we have going on here, but our staff is very resilient and tonight they are very focused on assisting this family,” Demings said. “We’re not leaving until we recover the child.”