June 15, 2016 - 2:37 PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The body of a 2-year-old Nebraska boy who was snatched off a Walt Disney World beach by an alligator and dragged underwater was recovered Wednesday, ending a ghastly search at one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
Divers found the body of Lane Graves about 16 hours after authorities first got the call that a reptile had taken the boy at Seven Seas Lagoon.
Sheriff Jerry Demings said it appeared the gator drowned the child and left the body near the spot where he was last seen. An autopsy was planned.
"Of course the family was distraught, but also I believe somewhat relieved that his body was found intact," Demings told a news conference.
The boy's parents were identified as Matt and Melissa Graves of Elkhorn, Nebraska, a suburban area of Omaha. A family friend released a statement on behalf of the couple thanking well-wishers for their "thoughts and hope-filled prayers."
Disney World closed beaches around Seven Seas Lagoon during the search, and it was not immediately clear when they would reopen.
While "no swimming" signs are posted at the beach where the boy was attacked, no signs warn about alligators. The company representative said it would "thoroughly review the situation for the future."
Demings said his agency and the state wildlife agency would look into the issue of warning signs. The sheriff said investigators would also review whether the boy's parents should be charged, but it's not likely.
"There nothing in this case to indicate that there was anything extraordinary" in terms of neglect by the parents, Demings said.
Wildlife officials said the attack was a rarity in a state with a gator population estimated at 1 million. But it still spooked visitors in a city built on tourism.
"We have been to Yellowstone and encountered grizzly bears, but this is just freaky," said Minnesota tourist John Aho, who was staying at the park with his wife, Kim, and their 12-year-old son, Johnny.
Kim Aho said their son was "a little freaked out about the gator."
The child had waded no more than 1 or 2 feet into the water of the lagoon around nightfall Tuesday when he was taken from a small beach, authorities said.
The boy's father desperately tried to fight off the gator, suffering lacerations on a hand, but he could not save his son. Neither could a nearby lifeguard, officials said.
No other alligator attacks have been reported on the man-made lake, according to Demings.
Some visitors were surprised to learn the reptiles lived on the property.
"My question is why are there alligators in there?" said Michelle Stone, who lives near Detroit and was visiting Disney for 10 days with her two children.
A Disney spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment. The sheriff said the company has a wildlife management system and has "worked diligently to ensure their guests are not unduly exposed to wildlife here in this area."
Nick Wiley with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said witnesses estimated that the alligator was 4 feet to 7 feet long.
The beach where the reptile grabbed the child is part of the luxury Grand Floridian resort, across the lake from Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park. The lake stretches over about 200 acres and reaches a depth of 14 feet. It feeds into a series of canals that wind through the entire Disney property.
More than 50 law enforcement personnel searched the well-tended lagoon along with an alligator tracker and marine units equipped with sonar to search the lake's sandy, mostly flat bottom.
Though Florida has grown to the nation's third-most populous state, fatal alligator attacks remain rare. Since 1973, 23 people have been killed by wild alligators in Florida, according to data compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The grim news was only the latest for a city buffeted by tragedy in the past few days.
On Sunday, a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, leaving 49 people dead in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. On Friday night, Christina Grimmie, 22, a contestant on season six of "The Voice," was fatally shot as she signed autographs after a show in Orlando.
Associated Press writers Joshua Replogle in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and Freida Frisaro and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016