ORLANDO, Florida: A US family’s desperate search for their toddler son, who was snatched by an alligator off the shore of a lake at a Disney resort, ended Wednesday when divers found the two-year-old’s body in murky water.
The nightmare at the Disney World complex is the latest horror to hit the central Florida vacation town of Orlando reeling from Sunday’s massacre at a gay nightclub in which 49 people were killed—the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Walt Disney World said it has shut down all of its Florida resort beaches and marinas out of precaution after the incident—the first such death in its 45-year history.
The boy’s father tried frantically to save him after the attack Tuesday night at a lakeside beach at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, but could not pry the toddler from the gator’s grasp.
“His body was completely intact… The body has now been turned over to the Orange County medical office for an autopsy,” Sheriff Jerry Demings told reporters.
He said the toddler most likely drowned. The body was found just 10 or 15 yards (meters) from where he was taken, in murky water about six feet (1.8 meters) deep, the sheriff said.
The two-year-old victim was identified as Lane Graves of Elkhorn, Nebraska—a suburb of Omaha. His parents are Matt and Melissa Graves, Demings said.
“Of course, the family was distraught but also, I believe, somewhat relieved that we were able to find their son with his body intact,” Demings said.
The gator struck at around 9 p.m. Tuesday (0100 GMT Wednesday) as the child was playing in roughly a foot of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon outside the Grand Floridian, which is right across the lake from the Magic Kingdom.
The lagoon is man-made but connected to a natural lake. And alligators—common to Florida—can travel over land. Both help explain why there were gators in the body of water.
The boy’s father fought the alligator—estimated to be between four and seven feet (1.2-2.1 meters) long, according to reports—but the animal and child disappeared underwater, officials said.
Over in one minute
Bill Wilson, visiting from Indiana, saw the incident from the balcony of his Grand Floridian room and said the attack unfolded in less than 30 seconds. Within a minute, the gator and boy were gone.
He said it first sounded like a fight had broken out.
“I looked over and here comes one of the lifeguards. He said ‘Everybody get out of the water.’ The mother was there and she was frantic, running up and down looking,” Wilson told the Orlando Sentinel.
Wilson said Disney staff and first responders reacted quickly.
The Grand Floridian is part of the massive Disney resort complex that includes several theme parks, water parks, hotels and golf courses.
“As a parent and a grandparent, my heart goes out to the Graves family during this time of devastating loss,” said Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. “My thoughts and prayers are with them, and I know everyone at Disney joins me in offering our deepest sympathies.”
Rescuers used sonar, infrared cameras, floodlights and a helicopter in their search.
At least five gators have been captured and are being analyzed, authorities said, adding that one of them may have been the one to attack Lane.
“Remember, it is Florida. And alligators are indigenous to this region of the country,” Demings said.
“Disney has a wildlife management system that is in place and they have worked diligently to ensure that their guests are not unduly exposed to the wildlife here in this area,” he added.
Alligators are common in Florida but it is very rare for them to attack humans, Nick Wiley from the Florida fish and wildlife service told reporters.
Before this incident, there had only been 22 deaths from unprovoked alligator bites documented in Florida since 1948, according to the service’s website.
There was a no swimming sign at the lake, but no warning about alligators, he added.
‘Horrendous’ few days for Orlando
Two days before the nightclub massacre in the city, singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on the popular TV show “The Voice,” was shot and killed at Orlando’s Plaza Live Theater during a meet and greet event with fans. The gunman later killed himself.
“The past three or four days have been horrendous for our community,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Wednesday.