Kasey Edwards had grown up around alligators — so he knew that when he had a 600-pound bull gator clamped on his left arm and a buoy rope gripped desperately in his right hand, he was in a tug-of-war he couldn’t win.
“I don’t care who you are: If an 11½-foot alligator tries to pull you under the water and you hang on, there’s something else holding you on out there,” the 18-year-old told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview Wednesday, three days after losing his left arm to the gator, but winning the war to survive. “I definitely felt that God was with me that day to keep me on that rope.”
Edwards’ life-and-death battle with one of nature’s deadliest predators played out at 2:30 Sunday morning in a canal that fed into Lake Okeechobee, the giant freshwater lake between Miami and Orlando in Florida. After an afternoon spent swimming and drinking beer at Vero Beach, Edwards and some male and female friends had gone to Lake Okeechobee to hang out along the canal.
The group had stopped drinking beer before they left Vero Beach around 6 p.m. with a designated driver, Edwards said, denying allegations that they were intoxicated at the lake. “It was 2 o’clock Sunday morning at this time. Nobody was intoxicated at all,” he said.
They had seen alligators, and when Edwards stripped off his shirt and announced he was going to take a swim in the canal, his friends tried to dissuade him, but he dove in anyway and swam across the canal and then parallel to a row of buoys that lined the far bank.
“I’d grown up around alligators as a little boy, swimming in the canals and the lakes,” the crew-cut 18-year-old said in explaining why he jumped in the water. “They never really bothered me.”
He blamed what he feels are the misguided efforts of animal-rights activists for allowing the Florida alligator population to mushroom in the past 10 years. With so many gators competing for limited resources, they’ve become much more aggressive, he said.
“They’re just in such a competitive environment; the alligators just become so much more aggressive,” he told Lauer. “Ten years ago, you jump in the water, they’re going to stay on the bank and look for a fish or a turtle or a bird, and for the most part just leave humans alone. Now, that’s not the case. It’s definitely been a wake-up call to me, and I hope it’s a wake-up call to a lot of people that alligators are definitely very aggressive.”
Then, with a rueful grin, he added, “They’re out for blood.”
On Sunday morning, it was Edwards’ blood that was on the menu. As he swam along the buoy line, his friends saw the big gator swimming after him. They screamed and yelled, but the water muffled what they were saying.
“I figured they were either cheering me on, or there were a few girls up there telling me not to do it,” he said. “I never in a million years would have imagined they actually saw an 11½-foot alligator swimming toward me the whole entire time.”
Edwards was speaking from the hospital where he was taken for treatment after the attack. He was surrounded by his doctor and two friends, whose quick application of first aid helped save his life, and he frequently grinned broadly, apparently unperturbed by the fact that his left arm had been reduced to about six inches of bandaged stump sticking out from his shoulder.
“I’m feeling pretty good — pretty optimistic about everything,” Edwards said. “I got a real good doctor, a good support group of friends and family around me. It’s pretty hard not to stay positive when you have everything working for you like that.”
Face to face with death
He remembers every detail of the attack.
“I was bringing my right arm forward to swim and my left arm was stretched backwards, and I
felt something clamp down on it, and immediately I knew what it was,” Edwards said, as calmly as if he were describing a trip to the grocery store. “I knew an alligator had bitten me. I turned around and the alligator surfaced, and I looked at it face to face. Everything got real quiet, no sounds — I could hear everybody on the bank yelling, but that’s about it.”
Alligators kill by clamping onto their prey and dragging it underwater to drown it — Edwards knew that’s what the animal that had his arm in its huge jaws was going to try to do.
“It did what they call a death roll. It pulled me under the water about five times, and I kept holding onto the cable as it pulled me under,” he said. That, Edwards said, was when he felt that God helped keep his head above water to keep from drowning. Finally, he heard his left arm crack and the alligator let go of him long enough to swallow the limb.
“At that point I didn’t realize that I had lost my arm,” said Edwards, whose only thought was to swim back across the canal to his friends and help. But the gator, having polished off its appetizer, came back for the main course. It hit the young man in the stomach, cutting him and knocking the wind out of him. But Edwards fought back.
“I gouged its eye, and at that time it swirled away and I began to try to swim back to the other side of the bank,” he said. “At that time I realized I was kind of swimming a little bit to the right and not as fast, and I realized I was missing most or all of my left arm.”
Fast actionHe grinned again at the mental image of himself swimming a crooked line because he didn’t know he had only one arm. He managed to paddle back to the shore, where one friend, Robbie Spiers, 21, hauled him out of the water and a second friend, Robert Schriber, 21, wrapped a shirt around the wound and applied pressure to stop the bleeding until a medevac helicopter arrived to take Edwards to Holmes Regional Medical Center.
Dr. Daniel Branham, who treated Edwards, said he lost very little blood, thanks to the actions of Schriber, who is training to be an EMT. Branham added that after another surgery to clean up the stump, Edwards will be an excellent candidate for a prosthetic arm.
Lauer asked Edwards to address reports in the Florida media that the group at the canal was intoxicated.
“If we were so intoxicated, I don’t think at all my friends would have been able to conduct themselves the way they did — the fast thinking,” Edwards responded. “And also for me to be able to go back to what I know about being attacked by an alligator, knowing exactly what steps to take to try to escape from him.”
He said that the real issue is the overpopulation of alligators. Florida wildlife authorities issue 3,000 permits a year for alligator hunters, he said, but animal-rights activists buy as many as two-thirds of the permits to prevent the alligators from being killed. More than 10,000 gators are also killed every year after being declared nuisances.
The alligator that attacked Edwards was hunted down and killed. During a necropsy, Edwards’ arm was found in the animal’s stomach, but it wasn’t in any condition to be reattached.
“I’m not saying that animal-rights activists are in the wrong always, but this is a bad situation,” Edwards said. “Only about one-third of the alligators that are supposed to be destroyed every year to keep the population at a safe level are actually being destroyed. Because of the gross overpopulation, it’s making a supercompetitive environment — and in a competitive environment, they’re going to become man-eaters.”