Croc kills woman 4 years after her sister’s death

/ Source: TODAY contributor
By Mike Celizic

Family and friends held a concert to celebrate the life of a young New Jersey woman who was killed by a saltwater crocodile while on the vacation of a lifetime in India’s idyllic Andaman Islands.

Lauren Failla was killed almost exactly four years after her 24-year-old older sister died in a rock-climbing accident in Washington state.

Some 200 people filled the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, N.J., for the weekend concert. Although they were still in mourning over the loss of 25-year-old Lauren Failla, the crowd ended up dancing in the aisles, as they said the ebullient and creative Lauren would have done.

Among those who attended the memorial was the Bishop John Shelby Spong, who spoke to NBC News about the unspeakable grief Lauren’s parents have had to endure with the loss of both their daughters.

“To have the same thing happen almost four years to the date to the little sister is almost inconceivable to me,” Spong said.

On April 28, Lauren Failla, 25, was enjoying a vacation with her boyfriend after earning her master’s degree in art at Sotheby’s Art Institute in London. She disappeared during a snorkeling outing. Two days later, her remains, mauled by a giant saltwater crocodile, were recovered.

The attack was reportedly captured on an underwater videocam that Failla’s boyfriend was using to record the dive. The camera was recovered along with Failla’s remains. According to a local newspaper account, personnel involved in recovering the remains had to fight off the crocodile in order to obtain Failla’s body.

‘Raging at the universe’

Lauren Failla’s parents, Frank and Kay Failla, joined other family and Lauren’s many friends at the memorial concert at St. Peter's, where she sang in the choir and volunteered much of her free time to charitable work while growing up.

The concert, featuring the local Blaire Reinhard Band, had been planned before Lauren’s death to raise money to send student volunteers to New Orleans to help build housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Church leaders initially thought about canceling the concert, but decided to make it a celebration of her life instead. Lauren had been a big fan of the band.

“She was a really good friend of ours,” Reinhard said at the concert, according to The Star-Ledger newspaper. “It’s really nice to have this happenstance excuse to all get together and think about what a really great person she was.”

Lauren was remembered as a creative and joyous person who loved to dance. She had been planning to become an art therapist after returning from her vacation with her boyfriend in India.

“She was having a blast, and the trip really did seem as amazing as a trip to India can be," her friend, Michael Haslett, told NBC News for a report that aired Monday on TODAY.

"I'm angry, raging at the universe, that such a thing could not only happen, but that it could happen twice in one family," Anne Yardley, who was choir director when Lauren first joined the children’s choir, told The Star-Ledger.

"She was a wonderful, wonderful person. We loved her, and are terribly upset," the Rev. Janet Broderick, rector of St. Peter's, told the newspaper.

Lauren’s family and friends have expressed outrage that there were no warning signs or crocodile advisories at the resort at which she stayed. There is a saltwater crocodile refuge at another island in the Andaman chain in the Bay of Bengal, and the animals sometime cross to Havelock Island, where Lauren was attacked and killed.

Deadly behemoths

According to published reports, there have been 24 crocodile attacks in the islands in the past 25 years, four of which were fatal. Saltwater crocodiles are behemoths that can grow to 20 feet in length and weigh more than a ton.

Lauren’s cousin, Gloria McLean Hiratsuka, wrote a letter to the local newspaper, Andaman Sheekha, in the islands, saying the death should not have happened.

“Such an unnecessary death: if there had been proper warnings and statements that there are in fact man-eating crocodiles nearby, I am sure Lauren would not have risked swimming,” McLean Hiratsuka wrote. “She thought she was safe. Her father made a point of saying she was not a big risk-taker, always a little reserved, all the more since her sister's untimely death four years ago.”

left/TODAY/Sections/Today People/2010/05-May/Lauren and sister Emily Failla.jpg140030000leftfalse#000000

Sisters Lauren and Emily Failla together. Lauren was killed in a crocodile attack in India in late April. Her older sister Emily died in a rock-climbing accident in 2006.

Image: Lauren and Emily Failla


Lauren’s sister, Emily, was also in her mid-20s when she died in a rock-climbing accident in Washington state, where she lived.

A local newspaper editorial also criticized the lack of warning signs. “The Administration should not play with the lives of the tourists and local people,” the newspaper declared. “It is the need of the hour to decide whether these Islands will be promoted as a tourist destination or a crocodile Sanctuary.”

Bernice Cook, Failla’s aunt, also wrote the Andaman newspaper, saying, “How can this be a safe tourist destination? Where are the signs alerting people to the potential dangers? A crocodile sanctuary and tourist destination cannot co-exist. This behavior is inexcusable and irresponsible on the part of the government.”

Magnetic personality

The Failla family has been very active in St. Peter’s Church. Both Lauren and her mother sang in the choir and her father, Frank, was the church treasurer.

“She was beloved,” Susan Rubli, who graduated from Morristown High School with Lauren, told The Star-Ledger. “Lauren was just one of those people everyone knew — a glowing, bright person, always the center of attention. She happens to be beautiful, but has a very magnetic personality and tried to relate to everyone.”

Lauren graduated from Vanderbilt University and was an accomplished artist.

A funeral service is scheduled for May 15.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.