Gray, 59, was in the water when he encountered Naegleria fowleri, a single-celled organism more grimly known as the brain-eating amoeba, state health officials said in a statement. He died 10 days later, on Monday, after developing an illness caused by the amoeba.
A deadly but rare infection from N. fowleri, which naturally occurs in freshwater, is prompted by a three-pronged series of events. Simmering water temperatures, low water levels and water rushing through the nostril all conspire to hurl the amoeba toward the brain.
There were 145 known infections in the United States from 1962 through 2018. All but four cases were fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 16-year old from Florida defied the odds and survived infection in 2016.
But Gray did not.
His death was tragic and untimely, Justin Plummer, an attorney representing his estate, said in a statement asking to respect the family’s privacy.
The infection attacks the central nervous system, triggering a barrage of symptoms such as fever, vomiting and, in a later stage, hallucinations, coma and the hallmark sign of a stiff neck.
But detecting the illness is notoriously difficult, the CDC said, because it progresses so quickly, with signs beginning just days after contact. A diagnosis is often made after death.
Health officials said that the amoeba cannot cause infection from drinking water, and it does not live in saltwater.
Five infections have occurred in North Carolina, the state said.
“People should be aware that this organism is present in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs across North Carolina, so be mindful as you swim or enjoy water sports,” state epidemiologist Zack Moore said.
The statement included other tips, such as use nose clips in the water, keep your head above the surface and refrain from stirring up sediment in shallow waters, but notes “there is no means to eliminate this amoeba from freshwater lakes.”
Fantasy Lake Water Park, which is centered on a man-made lake, did not return a request for comment. On its website homepage, the park posted an advisory detailing the rare risk of the amoeba, though it is unclear when the advisory was posted. The park did not carry such a warning on its page last summer, according to an archived page.
Gray is survived by Beverly, his wife of 32 years, a daughter and two grandchildren, as well as other family members, his obituary said.