Fla. rescuers, good Samaritans save hunter after alligator bite at wildlife management area

James Boyce feared he would bleed out after the gator attack, but a rescue helicopter and good Samaritans in a buggy managed to transport him to safety

Kimberly Miller
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

Skies had fallen to a misty 900 feet when retired Army pilot Brad Bost heard the call – alligator bite, bad one.

His unit with Martin County Fire Rescue's Life Star hadn't expected to fly Saturday morning with a cold front kicking up random tempests and dulling visibility. The team needs at least an 800-foot cloud ceiling and 2 miles of clear views to go airborne.

Hunter James Boyce explains how a gator that bit him had his leg in its mouth. Boyce spoke Tuesday during a press conference at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Plam Beach. His wife, Terisa Boyce, left, Danny McClellan and trauma Dr. Jorge Vega joined Boyce at the press conference.
Hunter James Boyce explains how a gator that bit him had his leg in its mouth. Boyce spoke Tuesday during a press conference at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Plam Beach. His wife, Terisa Boyce, left, Danny McClellan and trauma Dr. Jorge Vega joined Boyce at the press conference. (Photo/Greg Lovett, PalmBeachPost.com)

"I had 100 feet to spare," said Bost, a Life Star pilot for five years.

Deep in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, deer hunter James Boyce was dying.

Despite a makeshift tourniquet cinched tight by his wife Terisa, he was bleeding out. The 46-year-old Palm Beach Gardens man said goodbye – to his wife, and two children he could reach by phone.

"I said stand on my leg and keep (the tourniquet) tight, I'm going out," Boyce remembered telling Terisa before losing consciousness.

There are an estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida. One fell upon Boyce on Saturday, chomping repeatedly on his leg, and trying to drag him away.

On Tuesday, Boyce, who runs a plumbing company, recounted his brush with mortality. It started with a family tradition: the first day of deer season.

He's hunted in Corbett - 60,000-acres of Old Florida tangle - for 15 years and been a hunter for double that. He, Terisa and son Corey, 23, had parked their truck in the wilderness area, slogging three miles in.

"It was raining hard. I said, let's just try for an hour," Boyce said.

They split up. Corey set out alone and Boyce and Terisa went up high to stay out of the water and look for a tree for a stand.

"I went around this curve and all I felt was like an electrical shock and I just screamed," Boyce said.

He looked down. A 10-foot alligator was biting him, jaws opening and closing again and again, and pulling him down. He smashed the gator in the face with the butt of his shotgun. It let go, but launched at him a second time, biting him on his snake-hardened boots. Boyce was ready to shoot his own foot off to get away. He aimed the gun at the gator's head.

It let go again, and left.

Boyce was trying to keep Terisa away from the scene, but he needed her belt, and help. He told her to put the belt around his thigh and tie it as tight as she could.

"You've got to keep your head," he said. "Call 911, and keep your head."

It was 10:03 a.m.

Cell service is spotty in Corbett and although the Boyces were near a road, emergency dispatchers had trouble figuring out where they were. Unlike in the city, pings from towers are imprecise in the pine flatwoods and sawgrass marshes of Corbett.

"I know everyone did try to find us," Terisa said.

Heavy rain had turned Corbett into a squishy bog flooded knee deep in some areas and spiked with towering pines. Swamp buggies were the only vehicles that could make it through, their deep tracks filling with black water behind them.

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office has a copter with a hoist, but it didn't get the request for assistance until about 45 minutes after the initial call and needed to wait for a third person to help with the lift, said sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera.

"We got into the air, but were canceled when they were able to reach him," she said.

In the Army, Life Star pilot Bost, flew an OH-58 Kiowa copter, the same used by Martin County Fire Rescue.

He knew how to handle it and what it could do.

"We knew it was going to be tough to get there," Bost said. "We were trying to locate these guys based off their cell phone ping and that doesn't get you to exactly where you need to be because the coverage is so spotty."

As Bosts's rescue helicopter turned circles in its search, Jupiter Farms resident Danny McLellan and his family wondered what was happening. They were in a swamp buggy about a half mile from the Boyces about 11:30 a.m. when they heard a shotgun blast and a woman screaming. They started following a Martin County Sheriff's Department helicopter that was in the air, getting hand signals from someone hanging out the window of the copter to help them find the couple.

Boyce was passed out when McClellan got to him.

"He had a belt on, but he was still bleeding," McClellan said.

McClellan ran to his buggy, bringing back industrial Zip Ties that he added to the tourniquet. He called the effort "redneck ingenuity."

McClellan pulled Boyce onto his family's buggy and got him to where the helicopter had found a spit of high ground. The skids of the Kiowa were just visible above the ankle deep water.

The rescue crew had only had two emergency workers on the flight and needed four to muscle Boyce into the copter. Typically, when Life Flight lands, emergency workers are already on the ground, providing plenty of support to the team on the copter.

On Saturday, McClellan and other hunters in fluorescent orange shirts were quickly recruited, given careful loading instructions for a maneuver that Bost said can take a half-day of training to master.

"They were just Good Samaritans," said Bost, who flew along a roiling squall line to get Boyce to St. Mary's Medical Center as quickly as possible.

During the past decade, Florida has averaged seven unprovoked alligator bites to humans per year that are serious enough to require medical treatment. From 1948 through 2008, 410 unprovoked bites have occurred, with 25 ending in the person's death.

One of the people killed was 10-year-old Bradley Weidenhamer, who died after he was attacked by a 400-pound alligator on the Loxahatchee River in 1993.

In June 2016, 2-year-old Lane Graves died after he was snatched from the shore of a Disney World resort by an alligator. Six alligators were killed following the boy's death.

Two years later in June 2018, an alligator killed 47-year-old Plantation resident Shizuka Matsuki while she walked her dogs in Davie's Silver Lakes Rotary Nature Park.

Boyce said was resigned to dying Saturday.

"I said, 'You're not going to die,'" Terisa Boyce said Tuesday. "And it really wasn't too much later that we saw the helicopter."

By the time he got to St. Mary's Medical Center it was near 1 p.m.

"I respect the land. I respect the animals," Boyce said. "Sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time."


©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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