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'I was eyeball to eyeball'

The man who met a 10-foot gator headfirst in a drain pipe and surfaced with bites to his arms jokes about the encounter.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert Ditton was hoping for one thing: to pass out.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Robert Ditton recounts how he lost his balance and fell on top of the alligator.
Upside down in a drainage pipe, a 10-foot long alligator had him by the arm while three firefighters had him by the legs.

"Both of them wanted a chunk of me, but the firemen won," Ditton said.

Ditton sat in front of a phalanx of television cameras Friday and sheepishly explained just how he came to fall headfirst into a drain pipe and get bitten by an alligator.

Someone called him the man of the hour as he entered a conference room at Bayfront Medical Center.

"Klutz of the hour," chirped the 66-year-old neighborhood association president with a warm smile that belied the seriousness of the mauling he suffered. It took doctors 90 minutes and about 100 stitches to put Ditton back together.

His arm swaddled in wads of gauze, Ditton recounted how he lost his balance as he was lifting the drain pipe grate and fell on top of the alligator.

"I was eyeball to eyeball," said Ditton, who lives in the Lakeshore Mobile Home Park along Lake Maggiore. "I had no more than touched him when he bit me."

The incident unfolded within seconds Thursday afternoon as Ditton was attempting to show a Boyd Hill Nature Park ranger the alligator, which appeared to have been trapped for days in the narrow pipe. Firefighters were on the scene at 34th Avenue S and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street to shoo away a crowd of adults and children gathered to see the animal.

Ditton gashed the top of his head and scraped his arms and legs as he fell into the pipe at his mobile home park. Trappers eventually caught the alligator, which was to be taken to a processing plant and killed.

Paramedics rushed Ditton to Bayfront where doctors, few of whom had actually seen an alligator bite, were waiting. Dr. Forrest Arthur, the trauma surgeon who treated Ditton, said hospital personnel had to look up literature to figure out which antibiotics would combat the nasty bacteria alligators typically have in their mouths.

The wound, Arthur said, looked pretty wretched. While Ditton couldn't bring himself to look at his torn up arm, he was able to banter with the emergency room staff.

"He was awake and stable and in very good spirits and joking about it," Arthur said. "I think he was glad to still be here."

Arthur said much of the skin and the subcutaneous layer of flesh on his lower arm was mangled. Most of the muscle remained intact and Ditton has a good prognosis where mobility is concerned. Infection, Arthur said, remained the biggest concern. Ditton was being treated with intravenous antibiotics and was unlikely to leave the hospital Friday.

Going home, Ditton said, is high on his list of priorities. That, and connecting with a beer and a cigar. "You don't get any of that stuff here," Ditton said. "They're very narrow-minded."

For all his joshing, Ditton, who moved to Florida from Indiana a year ago, said he has come to have a healthy appreciation for alligators.

"Man, he was fast," Ditton said. "He could have taken off half of my head."

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