During the Summer of the Shark, a Florida boy escaped from death thanks to his uncle’s bravery

The shark that attacked Jessie Arbogast. Source: Orlando Sentinel

Between July and September 2001, a series of shark attacks received sensational coverage by American media – so much so that a Wikipedia article has been written that explores the phenomenon. The coverage inevitably ceased in the aftermath of September 11, but the story that sparked the media frenzy remains one of extraordinary heroism and survival.

In July 2001 – 15 years ago this week – 8-year old Jessie Arbogast was enjoying his final swim of the day after a family trip to Langdon Beach, Florida. Without any warning, the young boy was seized by an unseen presence in the water. A bull shark – over 7 feet in length and weighing 200 pounds – had gripped Jessie’s right arm and bit it clean off between the elbow and the shoulder.

Jesse’s uncle, Vance Flosenzier, was the quickest to react, plunging into the blood-curdled water to pull his nephew onto the shore. This was an act of immense bravery in itself, but Flosenzier was not content just to save his nephew – he wanted to also rescue the severed arm.

Ignoring the pleas of his family, Flosenzier dove back into the water and began wrestling with the shark. Despite the odds, he succeeded in overpowering the animal and was able to drag it back to the shore. By this point the alarm had been raised, and a park ranger named Jared Klein was able to shoot the shark dead.

With the assistance of a number of onlookers, the boy’s severed arm was pulled from the shark’s gullet. By this time an emergency helicopter had already flown Jesse to hospital, so the rescued arm was encased in ice and then rushed to hospital by ambulance.

Jesse’s condition was critical during the flight to the hospital. A heart massage conducted by his aunt which was continued in the helicopter was later stated as being crucial to his life saving efforts. Jesse was given 30 pints of blood during 11 hours of surgery after being brought into the Baptist Hospital, Pensacola.

When the arm arrived at the emergency room, an experienced plastic surgeon named Dr Ian Rogers began the marathon operation to reattach it. The first step was for the bone to be shortened and a plate installed so that it could act as a base for soft tissues to connect. Arteries, veins, muscles and nerves were then successfully sewn together.

“Jesse’s life had been saved,” Dr Rogers said, “not only by his uncle but also by the emergency team leader who decided to handle the incident as a “scoop and run” rather than trying to treat the boy on the beach.”

John Bandurski, District Ranger supervisor, said the uncle’s actions had been remarkable. “He just wrestled it. His uncle’s a big guy and he got hold of it and tossed it ashore.” Chief Ranger J R Tomasovic said shark attacks were more likely when the evening light was fading, the water was murky and sharks saw something they could not identify. He said, “Sharks live in the water. Visitors should take the risk seriously.”

The fact that Jessie survived the ordeal is amazing enough, without even considering the miracle that his arm was able to be reattached. One of the doctors who operated on Jessie said that he arrived at the hospital with no blood pressure, no pulse and damage to “literally his entire body.”

He added: “Because of the shark injuries and loss of blood associated with that, his brain did go through a period of time with a very low amount of blood flow.” To survive such injuries was considered a remarkable stroke of luck by all the medical staff who were involved in his surgery.

Within weeks, his story was the subject of a front page feature in TIME Magazine, and he became a household name thanks to the blanket media coverage by mainstream outlets. Of course, after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the media’s focus on shark attacks ceased overnight.

The story of Jessie Arbogast and his uncle Vance may not be well known today, but for a brief period in 2001, it was the focus of a media circus like no other. Today, 15 years after the attack, Jessie still bears deep scars from the attack, both mentally and physically. What remains clear is that without the actions of his brave uncle, he wouldn’t have had a chance.