The desperate search that began as a rescue operation eventually became a grim recovery effort on Wednesday when divers discovered the boy’s body underwater, officials in Florida said.
Divers found the boy’s body “completely intact” about six feet beneath the surface of the massive, man-made lagoon, not far from the area where he was attacked the previous night, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Wednesday afternoon.
The sheriff identified the toddler as Lane Graves of Elkhorn, Neb. Although a formal identification is pending, “there is no reason to believe that the body that was recovered is not that of Lane Graves,” Demings said.
Lane’s parents watched Tuesday night as the alligator grabbed their son in the shallows of the lake and dragged him deeper into the water, officials said. The father, Matt Graves, rushed into the water and grabbed desperately for the boy; Graves cut his hand while attempting to wrestle Lane away from the gator but was unable to save his son.
Although an autopsy still has to be completed, the sheriff said it is likely that the boy drowned.
“The family was distraught, but also, I believe, somewhat relieved that his body was found intact,” Demings told reporters.
The sheriff told the Associated Press on Wednesday that charges are unlikely against the boy’s parents because “there’s nothing in this case to indicate that there was anything extraordinary” in terms of parental neglect.
The attack occurred on the third night of vacation for the family of four from suburban Omaha. They relaxed on the white-sand beach that stretches along Disney’s luxe Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, one of the features the hotel uses to entice its guests, and they watched their young son wade ankle-deep into the lake known by vacationers as Seven Seas Lagoon.
A sign on the beach noted that swimming was prohibited in the lagoon.
The boy was just about a foot beyond the sand when, after 9 p.m., the alligator attacked.
Authorities from Disney World, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission deployed more than 50 law enforcement officers in helicopters and boats to the Seven Seas Lagoon, in a desperate search for the missing toddler.
By late Wednesday morning, divers with the sheriff’s office had entered the water and were using sonar technology. The search effort was complicated given the “systems built in the waterway,” Demings said.
“There are no words to convey the profound sorrow we feel for the family and their unimaginable loss,” George A. Kalogridi, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement. “We are devastated and heartbroken by this tragic accident and are doing what we can to help them during this difficult time.
“On behalf of everyone at Disney, we offer them our deepest sympathy.”
Authorities said that although alligators are indigenous to Florida, an attack of this nature is unusual.
“This type of thing” has never happened before in Disney’s 45 years of operating in the state, said Demings, the sheriff.
Disney closed all beach areas and recreational marinas in its resort just outside Orlando, although the Disney World theme parks were open Wednesday.
The Florida resort did not have signage warning of alligators in the water, and the company will “thoroughly review the situation for the future,” a Disney official said.
Trappers removed five alligators from the lake, which covers nearly 200 acres and borders the Magic Kingdom theme park. Investigators will compare bite marks to help identify whether any of the captured alligators attacked the boy, said Florida FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley.
“There is a good chance we already have the alligators because we focused our efforts on that proximity,” he said. “We’re going to go through the process, and if we can’t get a certain match, we’re going to continue to go out and look for alligators.”
As rescuers searched through the night, Demings said his crews would not leave until they found the child. That remained the plan by daybreak, when new crews arrived at the Disney complex to offer “fresh eyes” for the search.
More than 15 hours later, officials had switched to recovery mode, as Demings said the situation was not “survivable at this point.”
Grief counselors and victim advocates sat with the family throughout the night. Their grief was incomprehensible, said sheriff’s office spokesman Jeff Williamson.
“They are very shaken up, extremely shaken up,” he told reporters. “Imagine if it were you? What would you be?”
Demings, the sheriff, said Wednesday afternoon that he and a Catholic priest informed the boy’s parents and 4-year-old sister that Lane had been found dead after a search that lasted more than 16 hours.
“It was a tough message to deliver,” Demings said.
Although alligator attacks are rare in Florida, this case — inside Disney World, involving a very young child — seemed to hit all involved especially hard. Williamson said many of the law enforcement officers on scene have children of their own and feel deeply empathetic for the boy’s parents, who witnessed the entire attack.
“It is tragic. It is heartbreaking. There’s no other way to say it,” he said. “I cannot come to grips with what it must have been like to be in that situation.”
Members of the family, including a 4-year-old child, were sitting on the beach-like area close to a “regular” pool on Tuesday night, “enjoying the evening,” the sheriff, said. A baby pen was set up nearby, and Lane was “at the edge of the bank, playing in the water” when the alligator attacked.
“There were no other people in the water at the time, and I believe what this 2-year-old was doing was what, perhaps, any two-year-old might be doing as well,” Demings said.
His body was found about 10 to 15 yards away from the bank, where the water is about six feet deep, the sheriff estimated.
Witnesses who were nearby when the alligator snatched the boy gave law enforcement “detailed” information about what happened, but at an earlier news conference, Demings did not recount specifically what they said.
One witness dialed 911 at 9:16 p.m., Demings said. The mother and father, who at different points both ran into the water after the child, shouted for the help of a nearby lifeguard.
“The parents diligently tried to get the child,” Demings said.
A witness told CNN that a movie was being screened on the beach Tuesday night.
Signs posted near the lake warn against swimming in it, but there were no signs warning of alligators. The sheriff said there had been no recent reports of any nuisance alligators in the area, but questions about their presence in the lake will be part of the ongoing investigation.
The alligator that got the child, Demings said, was reported to be between four and seven feet long.
“As a father, as a grandfather, we’re going to hope for the best in these circumstances,” the sheriff said. “But based upon my 35 years of law enforcement experience, we know we have some challenges ahead.”
Florida hosts the largest alligator population in the United States and made the creature its official state reptile in 1987, according to the National Zoo. An estimated 1.3 million to 2 million gators live across all 67 counties in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2013, and inhabit fresh water marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes across the state.
Despite that, Wiley emphasized Wednesday that alligator attacks are an “extremely rare occurrence.”
“Millions of people enjoy Florida safely,” he said. “But you have to be careful.”
Since 1948, 383 people in Florida have suffered alligator bites, according to Florida FWC records. Twenty-three of those attacks were fatal. Last year, one person was killed by an alligator, and before that, the last recorded fatality was in 2007.
Alligators and crocodiles have jaws strong enough to crack a turtle shell, according to the National Zoo, and prey on fish, snails, birds, frogs and “mammals that come to the water’s edge.” Their vise-like grip is nearly impossible to escape because the animals perform a spinning move, called the “death roll,” to drown and subdue their prey.
Wiley said the Florida FWC works closely with the theme park to remove any “nuisance alligators,” or gators that are at least four feet in length and could pose a threat to people, pets or property, according to the Florida FWC website. Wiley didn’t know how often his agency removes nuisance gators from the park, and he wasn’t able to provide an estimate for how many live in the waters on Disney property.
“Everyone here at the Walt Disney World resort is devastated by this tragic accident,” a Disney official told reporters Wednesday. “Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is nestled among Disney’s sprawling complex, just south of the Magic Kingdom theme park in the Orlando area. It stretches along the west side of the Seven Seas Lagoon, which park visitors cross on ferries en route to the Magic Kingdom.
“Victorian elegance meets modern sophistication at this lavish bayside Resort hotel,” reads the Grand Floridian description online. “Relax in the sumptuous lobby as the live orchestra plays ragtime, jazz and popular Disney tunes. Bask on the white-sand beach, indulge in a luxurious massage and watch the fireworks light up the sky over Cinderella Castle.”
A.J. Jain and his wife, resort guests from Georgia, were on the same beach with friends near the scene of the attack Tuesday night, reported the Orlando Sentinel.
“I’m just here to say a prayer,” Jain said. “I can’t imagine what those parents are going through. It’s been one tough week in Orlando.”
This attack is the third tragedy to strike the Orlando area in less than a week. On Friday, 22-year-old Christina Grimmie, a former finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” was shot and killed by a deranged fan while signing autographs after a concert in the city. Less than 48 hours later, 49 people were massacred and 53 were wounded inside an Orlando gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“We’re doing our best to deal with all of the situations we have going on here,” Demings told reporters early Wednesday. “Our staff is very resilient, and tonight they’re very focused, if you will, on assisting this family.”
Sarah Larimer contributed to this post, which has been updated.