A 34-year-old Florida man described in harrowing detail how he survived a brush with death when he was attacked by a 12 ft alligator earlier this month, noting how he felt everything from the “scales” to the “teeth” of the reptile break his skin.
“That thing was huge. That thing wasn’t a little gator,” said Juan Carlos La Verde during an interview with ABC Action News recently, describing how he was perhaps better equipped at keeping his body calm from his days spent working as a US Air Force Pararescueman.
The attack happened while the 34-year-old Oldsmar firefighter was filming a promo on 3 August for his adventure training company, DefeatX, a stunt that found himself swimming through Lake Thonotosassa, an 839-acre body of water located about 20 miles northeast of Tampa.
The firefighter noted during his first sit-down interview with the news outlet since the attack that he had been in a bit of a rush that day, and outside of these circumstances, he’d have normally exercised more caution before entering the lake he knew to be a natural habitat for the large predators.
“This time, I was just in a rush to get it done just because I was so focused to get it done that I forgot my swim cap. I forgot my goggles,” Mr La Verde said.
The vicious attack was captured in drone footage by Mr La Verde’s company as he was training for a triathlon.
Without much time to react, the adventure trainer says he immediately understood what was happening when he felt the gator’s jaws clamp down on his body mid-stroke, a terrifying scene that was all captured on drone footage by a friend who was assisting with the shoot.
“With the right stroke, all I felt was scales, teeth,” said the 34-year-old, before pausing to clarify that he believes what he did next was immediately try and “open its jaws”.
“Because I knew I was in a gator.”
After a struggle with the giant predator, Mr La Verde says at some point the creature’s bite let go of him, releasing his bleeding head and limbs from the jaws in what he suspects was out of confusion rather than fear.
“It was confused just as I was confused, and then it just let go,” he said.
After struggling with the alligator, Mr La Verde had his next hurdle to survive: swimming back to shore and getting medical attention for the severe wounds he sustained to his head and jaw.
A Good Samaritan who found the man on the side of the lake’s shore offered to drive him to Tampa General Hospital, and while inside the car, Mr La Verde dialled 911 himself to alert the trauma team that he was on his way from suffering a serious alligator attack.
“I am not going to put extra stress on somebody that is already driving a bloody man somewhere,” he told ABC Action News.
In a GoFundMe organised for the former US Air Force member, his colleagues from the North Pinellas Firefighters Charities describe how he then underwent a 6-hour surgery to repair and reconstruct the damage caused by the alligator’s jaw to his skull and jaw.
“JC is a man who has dedicated his entire life to helping others. He has always chosen a path of selfless and meaningful service committing his entire life to service,” the online fundraiser describing the 34-year-old reads, noting how he first dedicated his service to the Air Force and now works as a firefighter and paramedic in Oldsmar.
“He has a contagious spirit for life and is energized by his family, friends, and his passion for athletic competition,” it reads, before asking for financial assistance to offset the medical bills and help his wife, Christine, as she supports his recovery.
Speaking to the local Florida news outlet, Mr La Verde admits that the entire experience has been a humbling one, with the stitches zigzagging across his shaved head and jaw serving as a daily reminder of his brush with death.
“I am perfectly fine. I am actually even better because this gave me a new perspective, you know, and not many people get that,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported shortly after the 3 August attack that agents from the agency had caught a nuisance alligator trapper near the same location where Mr La Verde had been bit, but they could not confirm whether it was the same alligator had been captured, according to WFTS.