24 October 2005

Shark attack victim: Twice bitten but not shy to dive back in

It is said that one of the most exclusive clubs in the world is reserved for survivors of shark attacks. If that's the case, Gabriel "Gabie" Botha must belong to the most exclusive club in the world - he has survived two shark attacks. And it is believed he is the only person alive to have done so.

And what's even more remarkable is that the attacks took place off the same beach and in the same month, three years apart.

Now 80 years old, Botha laughs as he recounts his ordeals, which both took place at Durban's Country Club Beach in March when he was aged 19 and 22.

The fear of being eaten alive is said to be humans' biggest phobia, which explains the morbid fascination with, and fear of, lions, tigers and other large predators, including sharks.

However Botha, popularly known to clubmates and friends as "The Dutchman", laughs off the shark attacks and to hear him tell it they were no more than minor setbacks in his incident-filled life.

The first attack was in 1944, on March 26. That morning a visiting seaman, Ernest Booth, was attacked at North Beach at about 10am (he died from his wounds that night).

Botha, on duty as a lifesaver at Country Club, and his colleagues were ordered to keep bathers out of the water. But at 5pm, with no sign of any shark activity, he and three others decided to get in a bit of bodysurfing after a long, boring day.

Botha, with one of his companions on his beach side and the other two on the sea side, says he suddenly felt a bang on his thigh. Reaching down, he was horrified to discover that part of his upper leg was missing and says he could clearly feel the large hole in his thigh.

He says it was almost painless - "a bit like a dog bite" - and swam "quickly" back to the beach. Fortunately for him the club had just been learning first aid, including pressure points, and his good friend Lou Johnson kept his thumbs on the correct places to help stem the loss of blood until they reached hospital.

With World War 2 in progress, ambulances were in short supply and it took 40 minutes for one to arrive which, Botha points out, contributed to his recovery because it was found in later years that the correct procedure with trauma victims was to settle them before rushing them off to hospital.

Johnson told Botha afterwards that he was pressing so hard on the pressure points that his thumbs felt like they were going to break, but stuck doggedly to his task.

In hospital for three months, Botha was encased in a plaster cast from his chest to his ankle and couldn't move. Fortune smiled on him, however, as a military surgeon with experience of war wounds was on leave in the city and had the expertise to perform the necessary skin grafts.

"The three skin graft sessions were terrible," says Botha. "Taking skin from my stomach to attach to the thigh was far more painful than the shark attack and the way the skin was ripped off had me screaming and crying in agony," he

The medical staff treating him said he wouldn't walk properly again as two major muscles were ripped out by the shark. But the young physiotherapist looking after him was determined to prove them wrong.

"She had a great attitude," said Botha admiringly. "Her response was: 'Rubbish - I'll fix you', and she did, with her treatment including a lot of cycling."

The young would-be engineer had just enrolled at the University of Natal - the academic year started in March - and having missed two terms as he recovered, the university wouldn't take him back and he had to wait until the next year before resuming his studies.

Meanwhile, declaring that "lightning won't strike twice", Botha was back in the water as soon as he was able, about six months after the attack. But, he says, he always swam alone - his friends and fellow-lifesavers refused to swim anywhere near him.

Three years later, almost to the day, on March 8, and at the same beach, Country Club, Botha was out bodysurfing and, while treading water waiting for a wave, he was chatting to the same Lou Johnson who had used his thumbs so effectively after the first attack, who was on a paddleski.

"Lou paddled off and suddenly I felt the bite on my right foot. I managed to shake it off and turned around - and was face-to-face with a 2m shark," said Botha.

"I lashed out at it and screamed and shouted and struck out for the beach. The shark had another go, this time at my buttocks but luck was on my side. First, it didn't get in a good bite and second, a perfect wave came through which I managed to catch all the way to the beach - the others I had ridden that day had all dumped me."

Botha couldn't help a laugh as he recalled the events on the beach. "I tried to stand up, but my foot was shattered and partly severed, practically falling apart. I waved to the lifesavers for help but, being a friendly bunch, they thought I was being nice and they waved back.

"A couple were strolling along the beach and I asked them to get help. The man, however, passed out when he saw all the blood and collapsed in the water. I ended up having to hold up his head to save him!"

The lifesavers finally came to his aid and in those days had a specially adapted bakkie to take a stretcher. With Botha on the stretcher on the back of the bakkie they raced off to Addington Hospital.

"However," laughed Botha, "in their haste they didn't attach the stretcher securely to the bakkie and it, with me on board, flew off the back going around a bend near the hospital. I was left lying on the road until they came back for me - which fortunately didn't take too long."

Botha says the foot was far more painful than the thigh because the nerves were damaged and it drove him crazy for years - and still does now and again.

Lightning would never strike three times, said the amazing Botha, and he was back in the water - or rather, on it - before the large, heavy plaster cast holding his foot together was removed, an act that earned him a severe ticking-off from his horrified clubmates.

"They were worried that if I fell off the ski I wouldn't be able to swim with the weight of it and would drown."

Even more amazing, Botha went on to play rugby - at loosehead prop. Johnson, who was battling for players at his club, was instrumental in getting him to play and he only hung up his boots at the age of 45.

"I was playing in a social game at Tungay Park and the scrum collapsed on my 'shark leg'. Any more damage to it would have been disastrous - the blood flow is not that good and healing is a problem - and after the match I, sensibly, decided it was time to call it a day," he says.

As modest as he is affable, Botha's gruff response to his wife Frances's query as to whether he had mentioned his numerous awards was simple: "No one's interested in all that," he said.

However, even he must feel a sense of pride at being presented with the State President's Award (twice) for services to lifesaving and the highest award bestowed on anyone in world lifesaving, The Order of the Grand Knight.

Botha is an honorary life member of Pirates Surf Lifesaving Club, which he joined at the age of 16 and has served in every administrative function "except treasurer", he says with a laugh.

He has also held every position in the national lifesaving body, has been secretary-treasurer of the world body and has fulfilled many other functions in the sport, too numerous for him to talk about.

Although he enrolled at university again the year after the first attack, the pull of the sea was too great and he eventually dropped out. He went whaling "at the ice" and did other jobs before settling down to a career in pest control, finishing up as managing director of his company.

He still swims in the sea. "Lightning won't strike three times," he laughs.

But he still swims alone!

Source: www.iol.co.za


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