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Man falls in with alligator

Trying to help a park ranger gets a 68-year-old man in trouble when he falls headfirst into a drainpipe with a gator.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Trapper Joe Borelli Jr. tapes the mouth shut of a 9 foot, 10 inch alligator found at Lakeshore Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert Ditton wanted to give a park ranger a better view of an alligator stuck in a drainpipe. He decided to move a grate that covered a storm drain.

Instead, the 68-year-old man fell headfirst down the narrow hole, directly on top of the 10-foot gator.

"It's got me! It's got me!" he yelled before a firefighter pulled him out by his feet.

Severely injured and bleeding from both arms, he was rushed to a hospital. But paramedics thought it was probably the heavy metal grate, and not the gator, that injured Ditton's arms.

A pair of trappers was called to capture the alligator. They lassoed it and pulled it out of the drain as a large crowd gathered to watch Thursday afternoon in Lakeshore Mobile Home Park, along the shore of Lake Maggiore.

Ditton, president of Lakeshore's homeowners association, and neighbors had been worried about the alligator because it had been in the same spot for four days -- in a fenced-off field, 6 feet down in a storm drain that leads to the lake.

How it happened
Only its head, front legs and part of its torso could be seen. It was boxed in, its snout pushed up against a concrete wall. Trappers would later say that the animal was in poor health and had crawled out of the lake and into the pipe.

Neighbors called various government agencies for days, trying to get help for it.

Finally, they went to the local fire station.

Three St. Petersburg firefighters arrived Thursday to find that the grate had been lifted off the drain, and a crowd of adults and children had gathered at 34th Avenue S and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street. The firefighters replaced the grate, shooed nearly everyone away and started making phone calls.

Anne St. John, a ranger at nearby Boyd Hill Nature Park, was called out to take a look. She and Ditton were standing over the hole, looking down.

"He said, "You can move this grate real easy,' " St. John recalled. "But I think he got top-heavy."

Ditton pitched headlong into the hole. The nearest firefighter, Eddie Utley, heard his cries and ran over.

"I got him by his feet and yanked him out, and then checked to see if the gator was coming with him," said Utley, a 27-year veteran.

Firefighters began treatment as Ditton assured them that he was okay. He had a deep gash in his right arm.

"It was more like a scrape, not a tear," Utley said. "If the gator had gotten him, I don't think I could have pulled him back."

Ditton also had a puncture wound to his left arm, but medics couldn't tell if it came from the gator or the roughly 80-pound grate.

He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center about 4:30 p.m. and was still being evaluated in the emergency room Thursday night.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission called in two trappers, a father-and-son team from Safety Harbor who capture about a hundred "nuisance" alligators a year in Pinellas County. They're still trying to catch an alligator that ate a Dalmatian earlier this week in Lake Seminole.

Joe Borelli Sr. and Jr. arrived and used a wooden pole threaded with a rope noose to snare the gator and pull it from the hole. About 100 people lined the chain-link fence to watch. A loud, horror-movie cry went up when the gator's head emerged.

The alligator was 9 feet, 10 inches long and weighed 150 to 200 pounds.

"It's in very, very poor shape," Borelli Jr. said. "This alligator could easily weigh 300 pounds more than it does."

He speculated that it had eaten something it couldn't digest, and was starving.

They wrapped its snout with thick black tape, tied its legs with rope and put the animal in their truck for the ride to Dade City. There, the gator will be killed and skinned at a processing center. Its hide and meat will be sold.

April, May and June are busy months for trappers, because alligators are waking from their winter dormancy and looking for food and mates. Borelli Jr. said gators often migrate from lakes to retention ponds and storm sewers.

"In urban areas," he said, "these are their man-made caves."

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