Some 50 wildlife specialists, including a trained alligator trapper, were combing a lake Wednesday at a Disney World resort hotel looking for a 2-year-old boy snatched while wading on a beach by a 7- to 8-foot alligator.
The effort was still considered a “search and rescue operation,” said Jeff Williamson, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“We are very hopeful,” he said at a morning news conference. “Sometimes you get the worst, but we are hoping for the best.”
The reptile grabbed the toddler Tuesday evening as the boy played in about a foot of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian Hotel with his father.
“The father entered the water, and he tried to grab the child, but was not successful in doing so,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told reporters at an early morning news conference.
The mother also rushed into the water to try to save the boy. When the frantic couple was unable to pull their son to safety, they alerted a nearby lifeguard who called 911. The father received minor injuries to his hand.
Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is spearheading the search, said the American alligator was feeding and likely confused the small child for a dog or a raccoon. The gators do not typically feed on humans. “People – even small people – are not their typical prey,” he said.
More than 50 officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission are involved in the search at the lake outside Orlando, Fla., Demings said. Disney, meanwhile, said it had closed all beaches in its resort area “out of an abundance of caution,” CNN reports.
Helicopters, two marine units, sonar equipment, a dive team and an alligator trapper are being used in the hunt for the toddler in the darkened waters. Searchers divided the lake into a grid pattern to look for the shine of alligator eyes in the dark and used sonar to scan the waters. The man-made lake has several canals feeding into it, making the search trickier.
Officials said they removed four alligators from the lagoon but found no evidence of the child, CBS12 News reported. The broadcaster said the reptiles will be euthanized to determine if they were involved in the incident.
Wildlife officials count around a dozen alligator bites a year in Florida, but fatalities from the reptiles are far less common. There have been only 23 fatalities caused by alligators in Florida since the 1940s, Wiley said. Tuesday’s incident is the first known alligator attack at the Seven Seas Lagoon, he said.
“They were probably attracted to some motion on the bank,” Wiley said. “That’s the way they stalk their prey.”
The mother, father and their three children, who are from Nebraska, have been staying at the hotel since Sunday, Demings said.
The sheriff said he was “hopeful that we are able to locate the child in a reasonable period of time” but acknowledged there might not be a happy resolution to the search.
“As a father, as a grandfather, we’re going to hope for the best in these circumstances, but based on my 35 years of law enforcement experience we know that we have some challenges ahead of us at this time,” he said.
There are posted signs warning guests against swimming in the lake, Demings said.
“Everyone here at the Walt Disney World resort is devastated by this tragic accident,” Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said. “We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
The terrifying alligator attack at one of the world’s favorite family vacation destinations comes as the Orlando area reels from the mass shooting at a nightclub that claimed 49 lives early Sunday and the fatal shooting of singer Christina Grimmie at a concert late Friday.
“We’re doing our best to deal with all of the situations that we have going on here, but our staff is very resilient and tonight they are very focused on assisting this family,” Demings said. “We’re not leaving until we recover the child.”