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Disney alligator attack brings back childhood horror for 1988 victim

Associated Press

Jason Kershanick was just 9 when he saw a huge alligator leap out of a lake and kill his 4-year-old playmate in their Florida neighborhood.

Now a 37-year-old paramedic firefighter, he remembers the gruesome attack "like it was yesterday." It hits him hard every time a gator kills someone else.

After an alligator snatched a 2-year-old boy at a Walt Disney World resort this week, Kershanick's wife asked if he wanted to talk. "I really don't want to relive it," he told her.

He was just steps away when a bull gator more than 10 feet long surged toward Erin Lynn Glover as she splashed through ankle-deep water in Englewood, Florida. It was June 1988, and kids at the time didn't worry much about gators, even though the town stood at the edge of the Everglades.

As a child, he described his friend's last moments to an Associated Press reporter. Game officers killed the beast hours later, her body still in its jaws.

He suspects few of the tourists at Disney World realize the mortal danger that can lurk wherever there's freshwater in Florida.

"We never thought about alligators either. When I was younger, we went to those lakes all the time," Kershanick recalled. But "just because you don't see them doesn't mean they aren't there."

Fatal attacks are rare, despite a gator population that surpasses 1 million in the nation's third-most populous state. The death of Nebraska toddler Lane Graves on Tuesday increases the tally to 24 since 1973, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Alligators usually avoid humans unless someone feeds them.

After Erin's death, "I remember people said they were pretty sure that they had seen that alligator before and that people were feeding it. Whenever that happens, that's what brings them closer to shore. If that's happening, that's the real danger," Kershanick said.

There has been no suggestion that Disney tourists were feeding the gator that killed the boy, and authorities said Disney's wildlife managers do a good job of removing dangerous animals from its theme parks. Then again, there's no practical way to prevent gators from slipping back in.

"Nobody should be feeding them, and I hope that that wasn't the case. But people — especially in Orlando — a good percentage of them aren't from Florida. And people could have been feeding them anywhere, even outside the parks," Kershanick said.

Gators, he said, can "move everywhere in water, even through pipes. If it's a lake in Florida, an alligator can get in there, absolutely."

Kershanick feels for the Graves family. Erin's relatives were forever changed by the horror. Even now, they declined to talk about it. Kershanick said he received a lot of counseling as a child.

"They asked me about nightmares, but mostly it was keeping me busy that helped," he said.

He joined the Navy after high school and then became a firefighter and a paramedic. The alligator attack still affects him as he responds to people suffering their own horrors.

"Every day in my work, I see extreme tragedy," said Kershanick, who now lives in Jensen Beach, on Florida's east coast. "It's easy for me to relate when I see someone in pain, because I've been through that and had to recover. Maybe that's what helps me in this job."

Three months after Erin's death, Florida launched an annual hunt to help control the population of the once-threatened species.

Kershanick grew up shooting ducks and quail with his father but didn't hunt gators until his 20s, when some firefighter friends got a permit.

"They asked me to come, and to tell you the truth, I was extremely hesitant," he recalled. Then they got their first gator — another big one, more than 10 feet long. He felt some relief, seeing its body up close.

"I almost looked at it as, 'gotcha,'" he said. "It kind of felt like, here's one dead to return the favor."

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