When Kaleb Langdale realized the 10-foot alligator was not going to let go of his arm, he knew he had a life-saving decision to make.
“If I could break my arm off I had a chance. If I couldn’t break my arm off, I was dead,” the 17-year-old said Tuesday from his Fort Myers hospital room, not long after losing part of his right arm just below the elbow.
Langdale, known to family and friends as Fred, was in good spirits despite knowing that the portion of his arm that was torn off — and which was eventually retrieved from the alligator’s stomach — could not be re-attached.
And Langdale, born in Loxahatchee and raised in Moore Haven, said he isn’t afraid of going back into the water.
“I’ve grown up in the water all my life,” he said. “And this one little accident isn’t going to stop me.”
Langdale’s brave fight against the alligator drew national attention Tuesday, a day after the attack on the Caloosahatchee River, just west of Lake Okeechobee.
It all started when Langdale and his friends were doing what they usually do on a hot Florida afternoon — swim in a race across the river.
It was about 2 p.m. and Langdale was the first to make it across. On the swim back to the docks where they started, Langdale was trailing the pack. That’s when friend Abraham Cisneros saw the alligator swimming toward Langdale at a high speed.
Three other friends also watched from the dock as the gator approached.
“It came as fast as it could out of the bushes,” said 14-year-old Gary Beck, “and it was coming straight for Fred.”
Langdale turned and saw the gator, then submerged his body beneath the water, with only his eyes above the surface, hoping the gator would lose track of him. It didn’t work.
“He kept coming straight at me,” Langdale said.
When the gator was about a foot in front of him, Langdale said he reached for the area of skin beneath the animal’s jaw, a move he’d seen on one of his favorite TV shows Swamp People.
When that didn’t work, he used his feet to push the gator away, but it eventually caught hold of his right arm, dragging him under the water. The gator then did what’s known as a “death roll,” a move in which a gator tries to rip apart its victim. Langdale said he felt the bones break in his arm. He tried to swim away, but because the arm was not severed, he couldn’t.
With another jerk, the arm finally severed and he was able to make it back to the side of the river away from his friends. He by then had yelled to his friends, “Call an ambulance, my arm’s gone,” said friend Matt Baker, 16, the third friend swimming with Langdale. The friends drove to the other side of the river to get Langdale, but rescue personnel had already arrived.
“He wasn’t crying,” Baker said. “He was mainly in shock.
“I just saw him holding his arm, what was left of it.”
Felinda Langdale, Fred’s mother, said her son had wrapped part of his severed stump with whatever cobwebs he could find to stop the bleeding. He was then transported by helicopter to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers.
Authorities caught the alligator about four hours later, killed it and retrieved Langdale’s arm, but doctors were unable to reattach the limb.
Jorge Pino, spokesman for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Tuesday that the Caloosahatchee River near the Moore Haven area is known to have large alligators.
He said the attack on Langdale Monday, however, could’ve been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Millions of people swim in Florida lakes and canals during the summer months,” Pino said, “(without) human-alligator encounters.”
Langdale, who attends Moore Haven Junior/Senior High School, has two older siblings, Rebecca, and Jyles, who is a Lee County sheriff’s deputy. When Fred isn’t hanging out with his friends, he’s fishing, hog hunting, playing video games or going out on his air boat.
“He’s a very outgoing, fun-loving, friendly and very funny kind of guy,” Baker said. “Everybody loves him.”
Langdale’s mother, who was in the hospital with her son, said if it was up to her, he wouldn’t be back in the water. But despite what happened, she said he already recognizes the big picture.
“He’s glad (the alligator) took his arm and not one of his buddies.”
His friends were grateful as well.
“If the alligator hadn’t gone after him, me and Abraham would’ve been dead,” Baker said. “We wouldn’t have known what to do.”