Addison Bethea was collecting scallops on Florida’s Gulf Coast ahead of the July Fourth weekend when she felt something latch onto her leg. The 17-year-old was swimming in water that was only five feet deep on Thursday, but she immediately knew that whatever was wrapped around her thigh had put her in danger.
“I was like, that’s not right,” Bethea told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. “And then I look, and it’s a big old shark.”
Bethea was bitten twice by a large shark near Keaton Beach, Fla., and was pulled away only after her brother grabbed her and kicked the animal away, the teen’s father said in a Facebook post. The Taylor County Sheriff’s Office confirmed in a statement that a “juvenile was bit by an undetermined type of shark, described as approximately nine feet long.”
She is in serious but stable condition as of early Saturday. Although the 17-year-old from Perry, Fla., survived the attack, she suffered “devastating damage to the soft tissue in her right leg,” according to a statement from Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, where she is being treated. After going through an emergency surgery to restore blood flow to the leg, the hospital said in a statement that Bethea is scheduled for another procedure Saturday afternoon “to further investigate the extent of the damage to her leg and determine what treatment options are available with the goal of saving her leg.”
“Right now we are addressing each issue day by day but the long term outlook for her leg is not good,” Shane Bethea, her father, wrote Saturday in a Facebook post.
Hospital officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday.
Shark attacks were on the rise in 2021 after three consecutive years of decline, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. The increase from 2020 is largely attributed to coronavirus-related restrictions, the museum’s data shows.
Florida is home to the most cases of unprovoked shark attacks in not just the United States but the world. Researchers say 28 out of the 73 unprovoked attacks last year came from the Sunshine State, representing 60 percent of the U.S. cases and 38 percent of worldwide incidents.
The Florida attack came the same day that a man swimming on Jones Beach on Long Island may have been bitten by a shark, according to authorities. Medics who treated the 57-year-old man’s laceration on his right foot identified it as a possible shark bite, causing the Nassau County Police Department to increase patrols on beaches during the holiday weekend, WNBC reported.
When Bethea first realized a shark was biting her leg, she tried “poking it in the eyes and punching it,” wrote Shane Bethea. Michelle Murphy, the teen’s mother, went so far as to tell WOFL in Orlando that her daughter “was fighting the shark.”
“I remember from watching the Animal Planet to like … punch [it] in the nose or something like that,” Addison Bethea told “Good Morning America” from her hospital bed. “And I couldn’t get around to his nose the way he bit me.”
As the shark attack was unfolding, her brother, Rhett Willingham, a firefighter and emergency medical technician, raced into the water to help her. Willingham was stunned to see the blood surrounding his sister — and the shark that would not let go.
“So then I swam over there, grabbed her, and then pushed them all, kind of trying to separate them,” Willingham told ABC. “And he just kept coming. So I grabbed her, swam backwards and kicked him and then yelled for help.”
Bethea’s father said Willingham put the teen’s leg in tourniquet to help stop the bleeding “and kept her awake, ultimately saving her life.” The family noted that a good Samaritan in a boat brought the sister and brother back to the beach, where she was soon airlifted to Tallahassee, about 80 miles away.
“The nerve on the back of the thigh was damaged severely,” her father wrote on Facebook. “There is an unreal amount of damage to her thigh area.”
Taylor County Sheriff Wayne Padgett described the incident to WCTV as “a tragedy.” Victor Blanco, an agent with the University of Florida’s Taylor County Extension Service, noted that it was possible based on reports from witnesses and authorities that a bull shark attacked Bethea.
“They prefer shallow coastal water, which means they can often come into contact with humans,” Blanco wrote. “Bull sharks are often considered to be the most dangerous sharks to humans because of their aggressive tendencies and ability to migrate up rivers.”
While Blanco emphasized that shark attacks are extremely rare, the sheriff’s office has posted safety reminders to residents on social media in the days since the incident.
“Swimmers and scallopers are cautioned to be alert, vigilant, and practice shark safety,” the sheriff’s office wrote. “Some rules to follow are: never swim alone, do not enter the water near fishermen, avoid areas such as sandbars (where sharks like to congregate), do not swim near large schools of fish, and avoid erratic movements while in the water.”
The hospital stressed that while Bethea “has a long journey to recovery,” she was in good spirits and appreciative of all the support she has received since the attack. Shane Bethea praised his daughter’s toughness through everything, saying she was “cracking jokes about beating up the shark” and asking for a Wendy’s Frosty when she was extubated. But he acknowledged the severity of a situation that could leave his daughter without a leg.
“We just ask that you continue to keep her in your prayers. She is a trooper but she has an extremely long road mentally and physically ahead of her,” he wrote on Saturday. “Keep us in your prayers as well because this is our baby girl.”