The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A gator ripped off his arm. Then he got lost in a swamp for 3 nights.

Eric Merda, 43, said ‘the pain was absolutely excruciating. I mean, I didn’t stop screaming.’

Eric Merda, 43, after an alligator ripped off his right arm as he was swimming in Lake Manatee on July 17. (Courtesy of Eric Merda)
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Eric Merda didn’t see the eyes gliding toward him as he swam across a Florida lake in July. Not until it was too late.

When he finally spotted the alligator, Merda tried to turn and swim the other way. But the gator bit down on his right forearm and yanked it back. With his right arm trapped, the 43-year-old from Sarasota wrapped his left arm around the gator as it dragged him underwater three times. Each time, he fought his way back to the surface.

Then the gator did a death roll — a rapid, violent spin alligators use to subdue and dismember prey. The maneuver ripped off Merda’s right arm between the shoulder and elbow.

The gator disappeared, and Merda made it to shore.

He’d survived the attack, but it was only the beginning of a three-night fight for survival in the Florida swampland, he told The Washington Post. Eventually, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would learn of the alligator attack on Merda near the Lake Manatee Fish Camp in Manatee County. A commission-contracted trapper went to the area and removed a nine-foot alligator and a six-foot alligator from the lake days later.

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On the afternoon of July 17, Merda, who owns a business installing and maintaining residential sprinkler systems, had traveled from Palmetto to Parrish to shut off a system that had gone haywire. It took about 15 minutes.

After he finished, Merda had some time on his hands that afternoon and decided to drive south into the country. On a lark, he turned down a dirt road he’d never been and decided to take a walk in the woods. At first, it was good fun. But he’d left his cellphone in his pickup truck and soon got lost. After a few hours of wrangling vines, grappling with bushes and losing battles to thorns, he said he was “cut from head to toe,” thirsty and exhausted. He couldn’t find his way back to his truck.

He was desperate by the time he reached Lake Manatee. Merda knew there were alligators in the nearly 1,200-acre reservoir and that the smart play was to walk around it. But he didn’t want to fight through the foliage again. It was dusk and Merda, who was getting increasingly desperate, decided to swim for it, thinking he’d find his way back to the dirt road once he did.

“That’s gatorland, man. Everybody knows that around here,” he said, adding, “I felt like I was going to die as it was.”

Merda thought it would take about 15 minutes to cross what he estimated was a half-mile. At some point well beyond that mark, Merda knew he was in trouble. Since they were weighing him down, he stripped off his clothes — work boots, pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Now naked, he started swimming a backstroke. Then, he got a feeling that something wasn’t right, looked over, saw a pair of beady eyes coming right at him and knew exactly what that meant. He tried to swim away but lost that race.

“She grabbed my forearm from the outside and snapped it back,” Merda said. When he wrapped his left arm around it, the gator forced him under the water. “It tried to drown me a few times. … Three times we went under. I had an arm around the gator, the gator had its mouth on my arm, and I just kicked, kicked, kicked.”

When Merda made it back to the surface a third time, “that’s when the gator did the death roll and took off with my arm,” he said.

Having lost an arm but also the alligator, Merda made his way to the shore, where he slept as much as he could in marshlands. At some point, he said, his arm stopped bleeding.

The next morning, he found dry ground and a tree. He climbed it, despite his once dominant right arm being reduced to a nub of exposed bone, mangled flesh and a constant source of pain. He spent the next several hours shouting at passing airplanes. No one noticed. Eventually, he realized he’d have to save himself.

“I’ve got to get going,” he said, adding, “You can’t sit around forever.”

In the late afternoon, Merda ended up back at the lake where he’d lost his arm. He tried to stay as close to shore as possible, but the overgrowth sometimes forced him into chest-deep water as he tried to work his way around the lake’s edge. At one point, he spotted something about 200 feet behind him repeatedly popping up above and disappearing into the water — alligator eyes.

“It scared the living daylights out of me,” he said.

This time, he escaped. As the day waned, Merda found some concrete structures, which gave him respite from the swampy marshland. He got as comfortable as possible and slept there during his second night in gatorland.

Merda spent much of the next two days sleeping, eating a few “semi-tasty” flowers and cupping his hand to filter as much dirt out of marsh water as possible before drinking it.

He kept trying to find help, even though moving through the marshland was difficult. The ground tore up his bare feet, making “every little half step hurt.” He had to fight through tall grass, all while naked. Thick foliage stymied navigation, and Merda believes he was walking in circles a good chunk of the time. He used telephone poles to orient himself. And, of course, there was his arm, which started attracting flies.

“The pain was absolutely excruciating. I mean, I didn’t stop screaming. … The whole three days — screaming,” he said.

“I had a bone sticking out of my arm, and I was using my nub to push brush aside to get through it. I had to. You’ve got to survive, man.”

The fourth day started out with more grass, more swamp. Battered and weakened, Merda didn’t move much. When he did, he grabbed branches and dragged himself across the ground, much of which contained thorns. More and more flies started buzzing around his nub. He waited to see vultures.

“I was pretty much a dead man,” he said.

But then, he came across an old beer bottle sometime in the afternoon. People didn’t stray far from beaten paths in the Florida swampland, Merda thought, so he figured one was close. The ground also started to get drier.

Finally, Merda spotted a fence and a man — the first person he’d seen in more than 72 hours. From about 20 feet away, Merda yelled to the guy, who didn’t seem to hear him. Instead of reacting to Merda, he walked toward the driver’s side of his pickup.

“Oh, hell no, that’s not happening,” Merda recalled thinking.

He sprang to life and hustled to the fence — “the easiest walk I had in three days.”

The man, who was part of a group, came to Merda and stayed with him as someone with him called for help. He waited with him until paramedics arrived in a helicopter about 20 minutes later and flew him to a hospital.

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Merda recovered there for three weeks. Nearly two months after the attack, Merda’s still getting used to life without most of his dominant arm. He’s scrapped his 23-year career in sprinklers. He plans to parlay his experience into a new one as a motivational speaker and comedian. He said he’s got a gig lined up later this month to talk to about 80 executives in St. Petersburg, Fla. He hopes it’s the first of many.

At the heart of that story is the realization that he was close to never being able to tell it. The alligator could have kept attacking him after taking his arm. Another one could have joined in. Merda could have given up at any point in the following three days.

But he didn’t.

“I had a choice. Do or die, man. I just couldn’t find a reason to give up. That’s what kept me alive,” he said. “But there were no guarantees, man. There’s no guarantee out there.”