An alligator that bit a Georgia woman Monday on Hilton Head Island waited until her back was turned before attacking, according to the victim and her family.
"He came after us," said Irma Heape, 55, who was fishing in Shipyard Plantation with her son Aaron when the eight-foot reptile shot from the water and clamped down on her right foot.
"We never provoked him or anything," the Hephziba, Ga., resident said.
Although she was treated at the scene by paramedics, Heape was later taken to Hilton Head Hospital by her husband, Butch. She spent Monday night in the emergency room awaiting surgery to repair broken bones in her foot. She also needed numerous stitches to close lacerations and puncture wounds.
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She was released Tuesday afternoon and has been relying on a walker and oversized medical boot to get around.
The incident happened shortly after 8 p.m. Heape and her son were fishing in the lagoon behind their Egret Point vacation condo when the gator swam within about 10 feet.
"My daughter said 'There's that gator!' and I turned around to run, and my son grabbed me, and I guess pulled my foot out of its mouth," she recalled.
Aaron Heape, 19, says he pushed his mom onto shore as the gator struck. The creature let go of her foot almost immediately.
"It all happened in about two seconds," he said.
'A DANGEROUS SITUATION'
Beaufort County resident Tom Murphy, who worked for 33 years for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources before retiring, said unprovoked alligator attacks against people are rare.
Based on details of the Heape attack, he and other alligator experts suggested the animal had grown too accustomed to people.
"Once they associate people and food, it becomes a dangerous situation," said Murphy, who continues to study the big reptiles. "That can be from intentional feeding or incidental (feeding), where a fisherman is trying to fish and the alligator gets the fish before he can pull it out.
"The more experience they have with that, the more risky it becomes."
Crews from the Hilton Head animal control company Critter Management tried but were unable to find the alligator earlier this week. Company officials did not return a phone call Thursday seeking an update on the search.
If the creature is identified and later caught, it would almost certainly be destroyed.
"You can't move them," Murphy said, citing examples where alligators have traveled 60 miles back to their nests after being relocated.
News about the alligator attack spread through Shipyard Plantation this week, but it wasn't enough to keep the Finn family from mullet fishing Thursday afternoon in a lagoon near Shipyard Golf Club.
"I don't see them as a problem," said Ben Finn, whose family traveled to the island from Louisville, Ky. "But when the big ones come, we tend to leave when they swim up."
Heape, who is expected to make a full recovery, hasn't let the incident sour her on Hilton Head.
"It's not going to keep me from coming back."