Boy in Florida gator attack: 'I felt its jaws'

By MARTIN E. COMAS Orlando Sentinel Published:

ORLANDO, Fla. (MCT) -- It was a hot summer afternoon, and 9-year-old James Barney thought it would be a great idea to park his bike and cool off with a swim in East Lake Tohopekaliga.

It turned out to be the scariest moment of the boy's life.

Not long after jumping into the water, he felt a strong tug, then a sharp pain on his backside.

James quickly realized: He was being bitten by a large alligator.

"I felt its jaw. I felt its teeth," the precocious redhead said Friday as he held a microphone and matter-of-factly recounted the previous day's harrowing encounter with a gator that was possibly 9 feet long and 500 pounds.

James told the tale to the assembled media from his bed at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children of Orlando, sometimes clutching a teddy bear.

The boy said he started hitting the gator as hard as he could.

"I was scared. I didn't know what to do ... I had enough strength to pry open its jaws," James recalled.

He then slipped out of its grip and frantically swam to shore.

"I yelled, 'Help, help!'" James said. "Some people came over and pulled me in."

James' friend, who was on the pier when the alligator attacked, quickly called 911.

"My friend got bit by an alligator at the lakefront," the caller exclaimed to a dispatcher as James was being pulled ashore crying and bleeding.

James suffered three superficial bites, mostly on his buttocks, and about 30 teeth marks and claw scratches on his back, stomach and legs. He was airlifted to Arnold Palmer.

Dr. Ross Morgan, a pediatric surgeon who treated James, said the alligator's teeth marks could be clearly seen on the boy's back when he was brought into the emergency room.

"He's got quite a few bites as if the alligator bit him several times," Morgan said. "It looked like it was trying to get a hold on him."

Doctors also found a gator's tooth embedded in one of the boy's wounds.

James told the medical staff that he wanted to keep it as a souvenir to show off.

"It was a pretty big tooth," James said. "I want to put it on a necklace so then I can tell all my friends."

But the tooth was handed off to officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help them identify the gator once it's trapped.

Will FWC eventually return the memento to James?

"We will find a way to make sure that boy gets to keep that gator tooth. You can quote me on that," said Nick Wiley, executive director of FWC.

Wiley said the agency would issue the boy a special permit so he can have the alligator tooth.

As James recalled his incident, he held hands with his father, James Barney Sr., who sat nearby.

"I was in shock," Barney said, describing how he felt as raced to the hospital with minimal information about his son's condition. "I just thank God this didn't turn out in a different way ... I realize I could've lost him yesterday."

Morgan said if all goes well, he was expected James to leave the hospital today.

The attack happened at 2:30 p.m. at a spot along Lakefront Park known as Dan Terrell Memorial Point, a spit of land jutting into the lake. St. Cloud officials call it a "non-swimming area."

Earlier Friday, a trapper hired by FWC to capture the alligator reported spotting one 8 to 9 feet long and 300 to 500 pounds, said Greg Workman of the FWC.

Meanwhile, St. Cloud officials closed the point and the lake's sanctioned swimming areas while the investigation is underway. It was not clear when those areas, which are popular on weekends, would reopen.

Regardless, it's unlikely that James will go near there any time soon.

Asked whether he would go swimming in East Lake Toho again, James gave this quick and simple answer: "Negative."

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