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Father rescues son from gator at South Florida refuge

It was supposed to have been a peaceful canoe trip through the northern Everglades for a Pompano Beach father and son. Instead, the father wound up in a terrifying tug-of-war to free his little boy from the maw of an eight-foot alligator.

Six-year-old Joey Welch emerged from the Friday afternoon struggle at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge with relatively minor injuries — a lot of cuts and bruises on his right arm and chest — but the episode could easily have been much worse. The powerful jaws of an alligator can break bones and crunch turtle shells like potato chips.

“There had to have been angels holding this beast back,” said Joey’s father, Joseph Welch, on Monday. “That alligator had no reason to let go, no reason.’’

The punches from Joseph Welch and kicks from a bystander almost certainly helped save Joey as well.

“We are extremely relieved the child made it out of this potentially deadly incident with only minor injuries,” said Rolf Olson, acting project leader of the Loxahatchee refuge in western Palm Beach County. “This really could have ended very badly.”

Alligator attacks on humans are relatively rare. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recorded seven last year, none of them fatal. Bites also had generally declined and leveled off since the worst year, 2001, when 16 attacks were documented, including three deadly ones. Though experts say alligators don’t typically stalk humans, they are also opportunity hunters, prone when hungry to clamp onto easy prey that happens to come their way.

Joseph Welch, a commercial photographer, said he’d been looking for something to do with his son, who was off from school Friday as a kindergartner at Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale. While Welch was paying to rent a canoe at a refuge concession stand along the L-40 canal, he said his son walked down toward the boat ramp but accidentally fell into the water near heavy grass along the shallow bank.

Welch believes the gator must have been hidden nearby because he said he heard the splash and a “blood-curdling scream’’ almost at the same time. Welch, a sailor, has plenty of experience on salt water but didn’t know much about the risks of fresh water outings. It was only his second canoe trip so he had read up beforehand, he said, on the refuge’s tips for dealing with gators while paddling.

But, he said, “We weren’t even in the canoe yet.”

He reacted on instinct, sprinting into the water, grabbing his son from behind with his left arm and hitting the gator as hard as he could with his right — hard enough to bruise and cut his own hand. But the gator held fast and Welch was worried about pulling back too hard.

“I didn’t want to get into a tug of war with the alligator because I was afraid my son would lose his arm,” he said.

The commotion attracted bystanders, including one man who yelled for Welch to carry his son toward the land where the gator would be more exposed. As he staggered out of the water, gator still clamped tight, the other man — Welch did not get his name — landed some solid kicks to the gator’s belly until the reptile finally let go.

His son, Welch said, was treated at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale for cuts and given antibiotics to prevent potential infections.

“The hospital staff couldn’t believe what had happened,” Welch said.

Though the boy was shaken for a time, he’s recovered well, his father said, sleeping through the night and even returning to school Monday.

A FWC trapper caught and killed the alligator, standard procedure for any reptile involved in an attack on a human. It measured eight feet but in photos a trapper supplied to Welch it appears on the lean side. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the incident.

Olson called the encounter “a stark reminder that we all have to be careful with animals like alligators. They deserve a healthy respect.’’