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The Curse from Orlando : Toddler drowned after alligator attack


Matt Graves tried to pry his 2-year-old son Lane from the jaws of an alligator as he wrestled with the scaly beast on Tuesday. His wife Melissa screamed for a lifeguard to help. 



The Nebraska couple, who since Sunday stayed at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa near the Magic Kingdom park, were on vacation with Lane and their 4-year-old daughter.

It would be their last as a complete family.

After a 16-hour search for the boy sent helicopters overhead and boats into the man-made lake, divers with the Orange County Sheriff's Office Wednesday found Lane's remains. They recovered his body, intact, about 15 yards from the shore, six feet underwater. It appears Lane drowned in the roughly 172-acre lake after the gator pulled him underwater about 9 p.m., said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
Lane's death marks the first alligator attack on the park's property since a predator bit the legs of an 8-year-old boy, who survived, on Disney's Fort Wilderness campground in 1986. The accident brings more grief to Orange County after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history Sunday and the slaying of singer Christina Grimmie following a Friday concert.

During Wednesday's search for Lane, investigators pulled and killed five gators from the area but have not determined the culprit. Officials estimated the responsible gator to be between four and seven feet long and must compare teeth marks to find it.

"I am absolutely stunned and heartbroken to learn of his family's unspeakable loss," said Anna Shymanski, a friend and coworker of Matt, in an emailed statement. "Matt's family is the light of his life, and his family's anguish is our own."

'Frantic' mother

The family was relaxing on the shore in a play area when Lane somehow ended up in the water, Demings said. The area has signs posted against swimming in the lake, but they don't warn of the lurking gators.

The attack happened in less than a minute, a witness said.

Bill Wilson of New Harmony, Ind., said he watched from his balcony after hearing screams and splashing. The scene unfolded in the dark, about 25 feet from a light.

"I thought someone got in a fight," Wilson said."I looked over and here comes one of the lifeguards … The mother was there, and she was frantic, running up and down looking."

Disney beaches remained closed on Wednesday.

"We are devastated and heartbroken by this tragic accident and are doing what we can to help the family during this difficult time," said George A. Kalogridis, president of Walt Disney World Resort, in a statement.

Attacks 'very rare'


Officials on Wednesday could not identify the last gator sighting on Disney property or say how many have been extracted in recent weeks.

That's because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which generally responds to nuisance gator reports, gives Disney full autonomy in handling the problem and isn't often involved.

"We have an open partnership with them where they can just call a trapper or have a staffer take out the alligator," said Nick Wiley, executive director of the commission. "They take the action directly."

Such attacks, especially with a toddler, are "very rare," Wiley said.

After hearing the news of another fatal alligator attack, Mary Mason shuddered thinking about her brother, who died while cave diving at Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County in October.

James Okkerse, 61, of DeBary, wasn't warned about the sighting of a 12-foot alligator, nicknamed "Big Blue," the night before he came for an early-morning swim, even though signs noted the perpetual threat.

Mason, who lives in Tennessee, said policies need to change to ensure the safety of visitors at Blue Spring, Disney or anywhere gators can strike.

"The signs are not making an impact," she said. "When people come to the parks, there needs to be something that's verbal ... They day my brother died, there was no communication from the park to patrons."

Staff writers Stephanie Allen and Christal Hayes contributed to this story.



echerney@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5735
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