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Florida authorities have found a body believed to be that of a 2-year-old boy who was dragged off by an alligator Tuesday night at Disney resort.
The Nebraska toddler was playing in the water on a beach area near Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at around 9:16 p.m. Tuesday when the alligator snatched him and pulled him underwater in front of his horrified parents, authorities said. The father tried to get his son back, but wasn't able to, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said.
Demings said the boy's body was spotted at about 1:45 p.m. ET Wednesday, and fully recovered at about 3:30 p.m. Demings, accompanied by a Catholic priest, told the parents their child was found and the body was intact.
"It was a tough message to deliver to them, to let them know that at this point, their child is dead," Demings said. "Of course, the family was distraught but also I believe somewhat relieved that we were able to find their son ... so they can come to grips with what has happened," Demings said.
Demings identified the parents as Matt and Melissa Graves from Elkhorn, Nebraska, and said the young boy was named Lane Graves. The Graves also have a 4-year-old daughter who was with them at the Seven Seas Lagoon when Lane was snatched, he said.
There are "no swimming" signs near where the attack occurred but no signs warning against alligators, a Disney spokesperson confirmed.
While an autopsy has not yet been done and a formal identification has not been made, there is no reason to believe the body is not that of Lane. The alligator is believed to have drowned the child, he said.
The tragic discovery brought to a close a search that involved more than 50 law enforcement officials, including Marine units who relied on sonar equipment to scour the lake. Initially a search-and-rescue operation, Demings said at a noon press conference there was “no question” the boy was dead after so many hours underwater and that the hunt had turned into a recovery effort.
But he had vowed to continue searching until the boy’s body was found.
"I just happen to have a 2-year-old grandson, so for me, this is a very human experience that we are talking about, where we are dealing with this family now who there's no question will lose a 2-year-old child," he said at the earlier press conference.
The boy was playing in about 6 inches to a foot of water when he was attacked. The body was found about 10 to 15 yards off shore in about 6 feet of water, Demings said.
The Graves family has requested privacy, the sheriff's office said in a post to Twitter.
The alligator was described as between four and seven feet long. Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, had said earlier Wednesday that five alligators had been trapped and euthanized for analysis. He told reporters it wasn't possible to examine the alligators without killing them first.
"They have to be euthanized to be analyzed," he said, adding that his agency has a "very good, close working relationship" with Disney to remove nuisance alligators.
Officials did not yet know if they had located the alligator who grabbed Lane. Wiley said there was a "good chance" the gator was one of the five trappers had already caught, but said the investigation is ongoing and his agency wouldn't rest until it captured the alligator involved.
"We are terribly heartbroken at this outcome," Wiley said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott called both the sheriff and the Florida Fish and Wildlife director during the search, and officials said they had been in touch with Disney executives.
The search effort was complicated by the large size of the man-made lagoon, which has signs around it warning people not to swim in it.
Jeff Williamson, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, said Wednesday morning the signs didn't specify why swimming was prohibited.
"All we know is that [Lane] was on the edge of the water," Williamson said. "My understanding is that he wasn't swimming."
His family members alerted a nearby lifeguard after the attack, and authorities were called as his parents desperately tried to rescue their son. Demings said it didn't appear the Graves had been doing anything wrong when it happened.
"I believe what this 2-year-old was doing was perhaps what any 2-year-old would be doing," Demings said.
Officials said the boy's parents had been undergoing counseling since the incident. Demings said the family wanted well-wishers to know they appreciated all the prayers they had received.
Jacquee Wahler, vice president of Walt Disney World Resort, said Wednesday morning: "Everyone here at the Walt Disney World Resort is devastated by this tragic accident. Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
Disney closed all beaches, ferry boats, and marinas until further notice Wednesday.
Florida has had at least 41 unprovoked "major" alligator attacks since 2010, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records. At least two deaths in 2015 were the result of alligator attacks.
A swimmer in Blue Spring State Park was killed in an attack in October, and a burglary suspect in Brevard County is believed to have been killed in November as he hid from police, according to the commission and the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
Earlier this month, an alligator was seen carrying a dead man in its jaws in Lakeland, Florida, 60 miles southwest of Orlando, although it appeared the man had died before the alligator got a hold of him.
But alligator attacks at Disney are almost unheard of because the resort staff "have worked diligently to make sure their guests are not unduly exposed to the wildlife" that are indigenous to Florida, Demings said.
While Tuesday's attack is the first at the Seven Seas Lagoon, in 1986, an alligator grabbed an 8-year-old boy between its teeth at Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness, according to the Orlando Sentinel archives. Paul Santamaria, of Bristol, New Hampshire, was able to escape with lacerations and puncture wounds after his 10-year-old brother beat the gator with his hands and his 12-year-old sister pulled him out.
The seven-foot-4-inch alligator then slipped back into the pond it had slithered out of, the Sentinel reported.