WEST PALM BEACH — Hours after an alligator bit James Boyce on the leg deep inside a swamp, the avid hunter had resigned himself to dying.
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He made his goodbyes with his wife, Terisa. They had tightened their belts around his thigh as a tourniquet, but he was bleeding heavily and going in and out of consciousness as they waited for a rescue crew to find them in a swampy wilderness area north of West Palm Beach.
“I’m in the middle of a swamp bleeding to death,” Boyce, 46, recalled Tuesday during a news conference at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach. “I planned on dying there.”
The couple had been hunting deer in the rain Saturday when the 10-foot gator suddenly lunged at Boyce, chomping down on his right leg below the knee. It wouldn’t let go.
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“All I felt was like I got an electric shock,” Boyce told reporters. “I just screamed.”
He says he and the gator made eye contact. “He’s looking at me and starts pulling me back, dragging me,” Boyce said.
Boyce picked up his shotgun and repeatedly smashed the gator in the face until it let go. But it came back, snapping its jaws onto his ankle and boot this time. Boyce said he wanted to shoot it, but was afraid he’d blow his foot off.
As he took aim, the gator backed off. Blood was spraying everywhere.
“I knew it was bad. I just knew it,” Boyce said.
They removed their belts and pulled them as tight as they could around his thigh. Terisa tried to call 911 but struggled to get a cellphone signal. They were miles from their vehicle, in such a remote spot of the wildlife management area that it was difficult to describe their location.
Time went by. Boyce lost hope.
“I gave up,” he said. “We made our goodbyes.”
Then a trauma helicopter appeared in the sky. The pilot spotted the Boyces, but there was no solid ground to land on.
Danny McClelland, 33, was with his family in a swamp buggy when they noticed a helicopter circling. Someone on board was making hand signals to them. They followed along.
“He led us right to where we needed to go,” McClelland said.
Boyce was unconscious when they reached him. McClelland said his “red neck ingenuity” kicked in: He grabbed some industrial sized zip ties from his buggy and cinched them around Boyce’s leg next to the belts.
They loaded Boyce onto the buggy and took him to the helicopter, where he was flown to the hospital. Nearly three hours had passed since the 911 call.
“We knew it was going to be tough to get there,” Martin County Fire Rescue Life Star pilot Brad Bost said. “We were trying to locate these guys based off their cellphone ping, and that doesn’t get you to exactly where you need to be because the coverage is so spotty.”
St. Mary’s Medical Center trauma surgeon Jorge Vega said the tourniquet and zip ties minimized blood loss and saved Boyce’s life. Vega called it “survivor’s instinct.”
Remarkably, the damage from the alligator bites was limited to skin and soft tissue: No ligaments or muscles were severed, Vega said.
Boyce was discharged from the hospital Tuesday with some impressive teeth marks on his thigh.
“They got me out of there alive,” he said, finding his words of gratitude inadequate. “There’s nothing I can say to thank anybody. What can you say?”