TAMPA - When an employee at Capt. Doug's Everglades Tours called 911 for help Tuesday, she did not yet know who was hurt or how bad the injuries would be.
But as a boat from another airboat tour company brought Capt. Wallace "Wally" Weatherholt to the dock, the woman panicked.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, it's my boat captain!" said the employee, whose name was redacted from the 911 recording. "Oh, Jesus Lord Christ, it looks like he's lost his hand!"
Weatherholt, 63, was giving an Indiana family a tour of the Everglades on his airboat about 3:45 p.m. when a 9-foot alligator opened its jaws and latched onto his left hand, ripping it off, according to an incident report.
Wildlife officials tracked down the gator, euthanized it and took the hand from its stomach to the hospital, said Jorge Pino, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Photos of the attack, presumably from the tourists on board, were handed over to FWC for investigation. Pino said a criminal investigation is ongoing while the agency investigates claims that Weatherholt was feeding the alligator, which is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida.
"The more flamboyant you are, the more aggressive you are in getting an alligator to come close to the boat, the more tips you're going to end up getting. So they're doing it because they think it's the right thing to do to get more money," Pino said of airboat captains. "But again, you know, at what cost?"
Judy Chroniak-Hatt, who was on the boat with two other women and two young children, told NBC-2 that Weatherholt was hanging a fish over the side of the boat, and the alligator jumped up and grabbed it, then went back into the water.
The gator jumped up again, getting its two front feet inside the boat, Chroniak-Hatt told the TV station. She said she thought the reptile was going to tip the boat.
She said Weatherholt lost his hand when he was patting the water, trying to get the alligator to come up again.
"I was sitting there in the seat thinking, is this thing really biting him or is he playing a game," Chroniak-Hatt told NBC-2.
Captain Doug's manager Glenn Smith said he spoke with the family following the attack to make sure they were OK. None of the passengers were injured, although Smith said some were shaken up.
"The one kid, yeah, he was very upset," he said.
Smith said he was not sure if Weatherholt was feeding the alligator but that "all captains know it's illegal."
"We don't condone it," he said. "We certainly don't ask the captains to do it."
As of Wednesday, Weatherholt was hospitalized in "good spirits," Smith said. The Tampa Bay Times reported he had been transferred to Tampa General. Attempts to reattach his hand were unsuccessful, NBC-2 reported. A woman at Weatherholt's home would not answer the door for a reporter.
Details about a donation fund for Weatherholt will be posted on Captain Doug's website, www.captaindougs.net, later this week. Smith said the company carries workers' compensation but did not know if Weatherholt would be eligible if the FWC pursued charges.
According to Smith, who became manager about five years ago, it is the first time an airboat captain there has been attacked by an alligator. He said some captains have been reprimanded in the past for feeding alligators, typically when a passenger made a complaint.
"You don't know about things until after the fact," he said.
Pino, the FWC official, said the agency occasionally does undercover operations to make sure airboat captains and other people do not place themselves in danger by trying to feed the alligators.
"These animals have been here for millions of years and they're going to continue to be here," he said. "The human being is a smart one. We have to make the right decision. If we're going to be feeding an alligator, if we're going to be taunting an alligator, the likelihood that you will get in trouble and you will get bitten is pretty high."
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