Escape from jaws of death inspires pastor

The Lutz man uses a 2004 gator attack as a pulpit to re-enact the terrifying event for television.

Published June 17, 2006

LUTZ - The cool water felt refreshing after a long bike ride and jog on a hot day in May. Rick Cabot happily dived off his dock and into the lake. He didn't get far in his swim before a gripping pain seized his left calf.

Two years later, Cabot remembers remaining calm. His initial thought was that it couldn't possibly be an alligator. But when he bent to look at his leg, through his goggles he saw a gator staring right back at him.

"I remember thinking: I can't believe a gator's got my leg," Cabot said.

Cabot relives that moment for an Animal Planet special called After the Attack airing this Sunday night. Two one-hour specials will be shown at 8 and 9 p.m. featuring attacks by a grizzly bear, a lion, a great white shark and Cabot's gator.

No stranger to acting, Cabot, the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lutz, portrayed the role of Jesus Christ for several years at a downtown re-enactment of Jesus' crucifixion.

In the special, Cabot re-enacts his own experience with the gator.

For the making of the show, Cabot wrestled a diver's underwater camera while fake blood and air bubbles were pumped in for effect.

"I'm not really an actor. I'd say I'm more of a stunt man," Cabot said.

Cabot doesn't mind using his gator incident as a pulpit for the many lessons he took away that day.

"Rick is a strong guy, partly because of his faith, but also because he's physically strong," said Andrea Anderson, the show's producer. "To have survived something like that makes you even stronger."

In light of recent deaths in Florida due to gator attacks, Anderson said, "he's fortunate to have made it."

"I'm not prone to nightmares," Cabot said, "but I've had a lot of 'daymares' of my daughter swimming in that same spot just one day before." He hopes his experience will caution people to be aware.

At the time of the attack, Cabot and his daughter Melissa had been training for a triathlon. Many times they had been in the lake behind the church parsonage on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, where Cabot lives. But on that morning Melissa had to skip the swim to get ready for an appointment.

Cabot relives that moment the most, imagining how grief-stricken he would have been if she had decided to swim and if the 7-foot alligator had sunk its jaws into her leg instead of his.

"I die 1,000 deaths when I think of that," said Cabot, who considers himself lucky to be alive.

After the gator bit into his leg, Cabot managed to throw a fist into its jaw under water. The gator released its grip, allowing Cabot to swim back to shore.

He remained calm during the attack and even after, when the deep gashes in his leg bled profusely, leaving a trail of bloody footprints to his door.

"I just knew I had to get him off me," Cabot said. He believes that staying calm helped him escape. "I think the gator realized I wasn't a threat," he said.

During the nearly five days of filming locally and in Hollywood, Cabot was able to talk with animal experts about possible reasons the alligator struck.

"Maybe he was defending his territory, or maybe he thought I looked like something else," Cabot said.

During the filming, Cabot also got the chance to touch an alligator and hold its tail. "It was interesting to feel its strength," he said.

He's not afraid to swim in the lake again. But his wife remains terrified at the prospect of an another attack, so Cabot sticks to pools.

Even after getting 38 staples in his arm and leg, Cabot managed to participate in a triathlon that August with his daughter.

The experience has brought them closer, he said. "God gives us life, and breath and all things," Cabot said. "This experience has deepened my appreciation for every breath we take."