Florida attack set off last year's 'summer of sharks' frenzy

Monday, July 8, 2002

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax letters and the steady drumbeat of terror alerts, much of the nation had focused its attention, and fear, on sharks.

"The summer of sharks," as it was dubbed, began on a Panhandle beach in the twilight hours of July 6, 2001, with the dramatic attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, whose uncle wrestled a 6 1/2-foot bull shark out of the water.

The fascination with Jessie's story and sharks continued for two months, fed by a record string of attacks around the nation, two of them fatal.

"It was one thing after another," said George Burgess, director of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File.

"You couldn't make a made-for-TV movie with all that happening without people saying, 'This isn't real, it's not believable."'

The attack, which nearly drained Jessie of blood and also took a large chunk of his right thigh, left him brain-damaged. He recognizes people, seems alert and smiles, doctors say. But Jessie can't talk, and doctors question whether he will ever regain learning ability.

The boy's parents, David and Claire Arbogast, of Ocean Springs, Miss., have declined interview requests.

Jessie's progress has been steady but slow. He can take a few steps with a walker and has limited movement in his reattached arm.

"Whether he'll continue to have improvement or not is anybody's guess," said Dr. Tim Livingston, a pediatric neurologist with Pensacola's Sacred Heart Hospital. "I really don't consider this a vegetative state since he appears communicative."

Doctors are looking at several treatment options including medications to increase brain function and botox injections to loosen muscles.

There is nothing they can do, however, to regrow damaged nerve cell connections or determine the exact nature of his injury.

The loss of oxygen and nutrients caused damage similar to that suffered by people who almost drown, doctors said.

Jessie was one of 55 victims of unprovoked shark attacks in the United States last year, a new record.

Two were fatal: David Peltier, 10, of Glen Allen, Va., killed by a shark off Virginia Beach on Sept. 1, and two days later, Sergie Zaloukaev, 28, of Oakton, Va., at Cape Hattaras National Seashore in North Carolina.

"Every little shark nip that occurred in Florida, of which we have about 30 every year, suddenly became a big story and was equated with the rather serious incident involving Jessie," Burgess said. "To a certain degree, we took a step backward from an enlightened view on sharks."

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