OAK ISLAND, N.C. — Beachgoers cautiously returned to the ocean Monday after two young people lost limbs in separate, life-threatening shark attacks in the same town in North Carolina.
A 12-year-old girl lost her left arm below the elbow and suffered a leg injury Sunday afternoon; then about an hour and 20 minutes later and 2 miles away, a shark bit off the left arm above the elbow of a 16-year-old boy.
Both had been swimming about 20 yards offshore, in waist-deep water.
A shark expert says the best response after one of these extremely rare attacks is to temporarily close beaches that lack lifeguards. Local officials acknowledged Monday that they didn’t make a concerted effort to warn people up and down the town’s beaches until after the second attack.
Most beachgoers near the spot alongside a fishing pier where the first victim was attacked were staying in very shallow water or on the sand Monday. Holly Helmig, 39, of Raleigh watched her 6-year-old son bobbing on a boogie board in shin-deep water instead of splashing in the waves farther out. Her 5-year-old daughter Zoe shoveled sand in a bucket next to her.
“I feel bad for the shark but I think he’s hiding somewhere in the ocean,” Zoe said.
Deputies saw a 7-foot shark Sunday in an area between the two places where the attacks happened, Sheriff John Ingram said. Sharks of that size are common along the coast, Oak Island Town Manager Tim Holloman said, and authorities are not trying to hunt one down. But safety officials scouted for sharks from boats and a helicopter Monday. One was spotted Monday morning, Holloman said.
Recordings of 911 calls released Monday include several people calling each attack in, some sounding nearly hysterical. The victims — a girl from Asheboro, N.C., and a boy from Colorado Springs, Colo. — were bleeding heavily, and other beachgoers applied makeshift tourniquets.
“His arm is gone!” said one upset female caller near where the boy was attacked.
Randy Giles, 52, was sitting on the sand with his fiancee, Schalane Wolford, when he heard the girl scream, and called 911 immediately, before she was carried to the beach.
“At first I thought it was a jellyfish sting, but when (the man next to her) pulled her out of the water, she was bleeding and a lot of her arm was bit off, so I knew it was a shark,” Giles said.
As people screamed to get out of the water, Giles said Wolford ran over to give the family her towels, and someone else used a cord from a boogie board as a tourniquet for the girl’s arm.
After the second attack, town employees drove along beaches urging people to get out, but the instructions were voluntary and not mandatory. The town has no ordinance authorizing officials to order the surf cleared even if sharks present a threat, Holloman said. As a result, they take their direction from a state law guaranteeing public access to beaches.
Just four days earlier, a 13-year-old girl suffered small lacerations on her foot from a shark bite on Ocean Isle Beach, about 15 miles from Oak Island. Both towns are on barrier islands just off the coast.
Surgeons amputated the girl’s left arm below her elbow, and she has tissue damage to her lower left leg. The boy’s left arm was removed below his left shoulder. Both were in good condition Monday at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, where Dr. Borden Hooks operated on both victims.
Oak Island sits just north of the state line and the popular tourist destination of Myrtle Beach. Attacks are unusual and the severity of the injuries are not typical of attacks in the region. Attacks here tend to be nips, or “tasting bites” when a thrashing human is mistaken for prey.
In May, a 30-year-old man swimming off Sullivan’s Island was nipped on the foot by a shark that witnesses said was about 6 feet long.
South Carolina had five attacks in 2014 and North Carolina, four, according to the University of Florida international shark attack file. None were fatal. Over the past 10 years, South Carolina has averaged four bites per year, said Bryan Frazier, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist who studies sharks.
“Our bites are usually a grab-and-release where the shark immediately realizes that the person wasn’t their intended food source,” Frazier said. “Shark bites are still an exceedingly rare occurrence for beachgoers when you consider how many swimmers are in the ocean every day.”
There were only 72 unprovoked shark attacks on humans around the world in 2014, including 52 in the U.S., according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Three of them — all outside the U.S. — were fatal.
Shark researcher George Burgess, who oversees the database, said he’s aware of only two other multiple shark attacks on the same beach in one day. “It may be that there are big schools of fish out in the surf zone that are attracting the sharks,” he said.
Even if lifeguards were on duty, the amount of area closed and the duration of a closure is always a question, said Tom Gill, spokesman for the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
“At the end of the day, it’s the ocean,” he said. “It’s an uncontrolled environment, which is why we think lifeguards are so important.”
Conditions that contribute to shark attacks include: swimming near piers, murky water that confuses sharks and beaches with few people in the water, Gill said.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.