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Leaping houndfish stabs teen in neck

The fish's bill broke off in the Tampa girl's neck, just missing her carotid artery and forcing emergency surgery.

[Photo: Dan Baker]
In a Keys hospital Tuesday, Stephanie Mittler holds pieces of the bill of the fish that hurt her.

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2000

Stephanie Mittler of Tampa was having an ideal spring break -- shopping on South Beach and hanging out with her sister and best friend -- until she went snorkeling off Big Pine Key on Sunday.

Stephanie, a 17-year-old junior at Sickles High School, stood up in chest-deep water to call her sister to look at a piece of coral. Then, out of nowhere, a large houndfish leapt from the water and stabbed her in the neck with its spearlike nose.

"I thought someone threw something (at) my neck, like a big rock or something," she said Tuesday from her hospital bed in Marathon. "Then I started seeing all the blood. It was very, very, very scary."

The bill of the houndfish, a larger cousin to the needlefish, broke off in her neck, leaving two knifelike pieces embedded under the skin just below her left ear. Both were studded with tiny sharp teeth. A 4-inch piece missed slicing into her carotid artery by a millimeter, said her mother, Laura Mittler.

"For a freak accident, she was very lucky," she said. "It could have been deadly."

Stephanie's sister, Jennifer, also 17, was about 5 feet away when the houndfish jumped.

"There was a splash right next to me, and I guess that was the rest of the fish landing," she said. "I looked at her, and she was just bleeding terribly."

"We thought it was a shark," said Stephanie's friend, Maria Krebs, a 17-year-old exchange student from Brazil.

On a nearby pontoon boat, 45-year-old Karen Schaaf said, she immediately sensed something terrible had happened and jumped into the water to help. Schaaf, who is the Mittlers' neighbor in Tampa and Maria's host mother, saw "a huge amount of blood pouring from her neck and pooling in the water."

They got Stephanie back on the boat, which was about 200 yards offshore, and began applying pressure to her neck. Schaaf could feel something under the skin, but didn't know what it was.

"I thought she was going to bleed to death," said Mrs. Schaaf, a teacher at Bellamy Elementary School. "She was saying, "There's something in my mouth. There's something in my mouth.' I thought it was the blood, and I told her to spit it out."

It turned out to be the tip of the fish's bill poking through the soft palate of Stephanie's mouth.

As the group motored toward shore, they yelled for two people they saw on the beach to call 911. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance swerved around cars on the two lanes of Seven Mile Bridge.

At Fisherman's Hospital in Marathon, Stephanie underwent emergency surgery.

Back in Tampa, Laura Mittler heard about the incident when an emergency room doctor called while she was gardening and said something about removing fish barbs. She thought it was something minor until she heard that an anesthesiologist and ear, nose and throat surgeon were rushing to the hospital.

"I about fainted against my oak tree in the front yard," she said.

When Mrs. Mittler arrived at the hospital to find her daughter on a respirator, Stephanie wrote a series of notes. She said she was sorry. She offered money for the hospital bill. And she asked what happened to her new maroon Calvin Klein swimsuit.

Stephanie was removed from the respirator, transferred out of intensive care and was in good condition Tuesday, but she remained on "heavy duty antibiotics" to ward off infection, Laura Mittler said.

"She's a celebrity in the hospital," she said. "They've never seen anything like it in the Keys."

While such incidents are uncommon, "it's not unheard of," said Philip Motta, an ichthyologist at the University of South Florida. "It happens to fishermen occasionally. It's happened to one of my students."

In that case, Motta and a group of graduate students were diving at night in the Dry Tortugas. The student had surfaced, and had a glowing light stick tied to the top of his air tank just behind his head. The houndfish, apparently attracted by the light, slammed into the side of his head.

"It cut right through the scalp and hit the cranium," damaging a nerve, Motta said. Such collisions often happen at dawn, dusk or at night.

"In most cases, it's a mistaken identity or it's a mistaken charge," Motta said. He said it is likely that the fish died once it broke its bill.

Sometimes, people just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a houndfish strikes them accidentally. Either way, getting hit by a houndfish can be deadly. The biggest houndfish can measure 5 feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds. The lower part of their tail is also larger than the upper part, and that enables the fish to leap out of the water.

"It generates a lot of power for zooming along the surface," Motta said.

In March 1999, according to the London Daily Mail, a fisherman in Malaysia was killed when a 4-foot houndfish jumped from the ocean and stabbed him through the lung.

Laura Mittler said her daughter spent Tuesday resting, eating ice cream, reading Seventeen magazine and doing an occasional radio interview. She hoped that she could leave the hospital Thursday and go home to the Tampa suburb of Northdale on Friday.

Stephanie said she had been enjoying her first-ever snorkeling trip until the houndfish hit her. She might do it again. But the experience did not change her mind about fish generally.

"I hate all fish," she said. "I hate all seafood." And this, she said, only "made it worse."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

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