This isn’t another shark story that will ruin your beach vacation.
We’ve had enough of those this summer. In a 28-day span, sharks attacked eight people along a 100-mile stretch of the North Carolina coastline — a record high in the 80 years folks have tracked such things.
The Summer of ’15 may long be remembered as the year when the revelry on the glinting sand and sparkling water of the Atlantic was muted by something else: the fear that somewhere out there, danger lurked. A sense of urgency hovered over normally lazy, hazy places. It didn’t help that this was the 40th anniversary of “Jaws”; beachgoers could almost hear that terrifying theme music pounding in their ears.
One Carolina town succumbed twice on June 14, all in the course of 86 minutes. The victims were children –12 and 16. They were bitten within two miles of each other. Suddenly, Oak Island found its name glaring in “shark attack” headlines. Not since Hurricane Floyd roared through in 1999 had this North Carolina coastal town felt so defeated by nature.
But those horrifying attacks were followed by remarkable moments. Strangers rushed to save lives. Paramedics and doctors performed their optimal to heal. The town’s residents banded together to promote safety and to honor the victims.
And one teenager, whose life is now inextricably linked to the great fish with the crescent tail, lived to tell the story of a lifetime.
It is, no doubt, a tale of predator and prey. But it is also something greater: It’s about fortitude and courage.
And a boy who inspired us in the summer of the shark.
Just another summer day
Hunter Treschl sat in the front seat of his grandmother’s Duke-blue Subaru Forester on the three-plus-hour ride down Interstate 40 toward the beach. He had headphones in his ears, Adidas sandals on his feet.
“Turn here!” the 16-year-old shouted as they passed signs for Topsail Beach, North Carolina. The family had vacationed there for as long as Hunter could remember.
But his grandmother kept going.
Kathryn Lyons had decided on a different location for their annual summer beach outing. She’d long heard of the beauty of Oak Island and booked a room at Oak Island Inn for $89 a night.
You might like it better than Topsail, she told her grandson.
Hunter loved and missed the beach, especially since he’d moved with his mom from North Carolina to Colorado. On this trip, he’d come alone to visit his grandmother in Durham, and Kathryn thought it would be fun to take Hunter and his cousin, Jacob Sward, to the beach for a couple of days.
Hunter was an only child about to start his junior year in high school. Jacob was two years older, and they were close growing up. They were looking forward to time together with their Gogi, the name Jacob had given his grandma when he was little.
The boys had looked so handsome a few weekends ago at their aunt Brittany’s wedding in New Orleans. They both served as ushers. The entire family celebrated and danced in the rain.
At Oak Island, the threesome checked into the motel. The boys gave Kathryn just enough time to change and take her contact lenses out. The beach was only a half mile away but the boys were impatient and insisted that Kathryn drive. She thought it was silly to take the car. Later, she would be glad she did.
It was about 3:30 in the afternoon by the time they trudged over the dunes. The boys raced into the water.
Kathryn set up their blankets on the sand and watched from afar. Hunter was such a good swimmer. In middle school, he made it to the state championships with his breast stroke and freestyle. Still, she was a bit nervous at the beach, plagued by memories of being caught in a riptide with her daughters when they were young.
She gazed up at the puffy white clouds floating in the sky. This is going to be such a beautiful day, she thought — one that she would remember forever. She waded into the ocean and was taken aback by how warm it felt. She noticed fishermen casting lines from the beach. She’d never seen people catch fish so close to the shore.
She watched the boys throw seaweed at each other. They were always so silly together. Pranksters. One time, they tucked plastic bugs inside her bedsheets.
Soon, they joined her on the beach and the three built sandcastles. As the tide started coming in, they worked furiously to pile sand high enough to protect their creations. Covered in sand, the boys decided to rinse off in the water before heading back to the motel. It was getting close to dinnertime and besides, the skies were growing dark, even though there was no rain in the forecast.
The boys waded out in the water and Kathryn began gathering up their things. Suddenly, she heard someone yelling. She stood up and strained to see her grandsons. Jacob had his right arm extended in front of him and his left arm across Hunter’s back. Hunter’s stomach was pink. She thought the boys were playing another trick on her. Then she realized the pink was water mixed with blood.
The boys were walking with purpose toward the shore. Kathryn could see Hunter’s eyes — round and wide open. The expression on his face said: What the hell just happened?
The first desperate call
Sunday was Fire Chief Chris Anselmo’s day off. It was just three weekends after the surge of tourists on Memorial Day and he was thankful for the quiet.
Then his pager lit up.
At 4:12 p.m., a woman had dialed 911 from the beach near Ocean Crest Pier.
Brunswick County dispatcher Jennifer Hatley fielded the call.
“There’s a girl whose entire hand has been bitten off by a shark,” the caller said. “We need an ambulance right away.”
“Are any of the fingers completely amputated?” Jennifer asked.
“It looks her entire hand is gone from what I can tell.”
The chief had dealt with all sorts of accidents and near-drownings. A few years ago, a surfer was paralyzed after he wiped out and hit his head. But the chief also knew that people underestimate the force of the ocean. Things happen, and they freak out.
The 911 caller was probably exaggerating, he thought. Never in his 16 years in the Brunswick County fire department had he encountered a shark attack.
He got in his SUV and made his way to the access point on Beach Drive.
By then, bystanders had put pressure on the girl’s arm and paramedics had started emergency aid. Kiersten Yow was 12 and from Archdale, North Carolina.
The chief jumped into the ambulance and started getting it ready. Last year, his emergency crews had responded to 1,300 calls.
He felt as prepared as he could ever be to deal with his first shark attack.
The medics carried Kiersten on a stretcher to the ambulance. The chief started an intravenous tube in her right foot. The shark had bitten off her left hand and taken a chunk out of her left leg.
The ambulance hurtled down 46th Street toward the Middleton Park soccer field. An AirLink helicopter was on its way to airlift Kiersten to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, 30 miles away.
The chief watched the helicopter lift off, confident that Kiersten would be OK. He drove home and plopped down in his living room chair, pondering the rarity of a shark attack. A few minutes later, his pager went off again.
There had been another one.
This can’t be happening, he said to his family, double-checking his pager to make sure he wasn’t hearing the old call.
He climbed back in his truck to return to the ocean.
‘I will never forgive myself’
Hunter’s grandmother had worked as a nurse for 31 years. She knew immediately that her grandson was in serious trouble. As Jacob helped his cousin out of the ocean, she could see that Hunter’s most of his left arm was gone. It was a clean slice; she saw the bones jutting out.
She also knew that the shark bite wasn’t the biggest threat to Hunter’s life, that what kills people is the enormous loss of blood that comes after.
Crimson-colored waves washed ashore.
Lie down. Lie down, she said to Hunter. Several people gathered around him.
She ran to her beach bag and fished out her phone to call 911. It was ringing and ringing when out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone holding a phone. She realized then that other people were calling, too.
“His arm is gone,” one caller told Jennifer Hatley, the dispatcher.
“Can you tell me what part of his body is injured?” Hatley asked.
“His left arm, ma’am.”
Another caller said it was a shark.
“It bit a man’s arm off… He’s bleeding out… We need an ambulance.”
“OK, listen, tell them, do not use a tourniquet,” Hatley said, just as she had done with Kiersten. So many people get it wrong and end up hurting the victim even more.
“I’m going to tell you how to stop the bleeding,” she continued. She had trained hard to remain calm in the middle of chaos.
“Listen carefully to make sure we do it right. Tell them to make sure they have a clean, dry cloth or towel and place it right on the wound. OK, if you can, just tell them to let him rest in the most comfortable position and keep reassuring him that help is on the way soon, OK?”
But one bystander had already taken off his belt and wrapped it around Hunter’s upper arm. Someone else grabbed a beach towel and pressed it to Hunter’s wound. Red quickly seeped into the towel’s white and yellow stripes.
Hunter had seen a helicopter overhead minutes before he was bitten. Now a guy who said he was vacationing from New Jersey was telling him that a girl had been attacked by a shark shortly before Hunter. The helicopter was carrying her to the hospital.
What were the chances of this happening? thought Hunter.
He could see people moving fast around him. He lay on the sand — awake, alert . He knew his arm was gone. He knew his bone was exposed. Perhaps he was in a state of shock, but he did not feel severe pain. He felt cold.
He kept a weird calm about him. He did not want to look at his wound. He looked at his grandmother, ruefully.
My mom is going to be really pissed, he said.
Kathryn looked at her wounded grandson and thought: This happened on my watch. I will never forgive myself.
By then a freak storm had arrived out of nowhere and the rain was so heavy that the chopper that airlifted Kiersten to the hospital could not land back at the soccer field. Paramedics rushed Hunter by ambulance to another landing pad.
How are you doing? Hunter asked Jasper Tran, the AirLink nurse, as he was loaded onboard. Are you here to save my life today?
Tran couldn’t believe his patient’s state of mind. This kid was either in massive shock or he was a really funny guy.
Back at the beach, Kathryn grabbed her other grandson and raced back to the motel, thankful now that the boys had forced her to drive. They fetched Hunter’s glasses, phone and the bags they’d never unpacked and drove to the hospital.
A thousand thoughts flooded Kathryn’s mind. If it had just started raining a few minutes earlier, they would have left the beach before the shark found Hunter. And why didn’t she listen to Hunter in the first place and go to Topsail instead?
At the hospital, she was ushered into a consulting room.
The doctor will be right with you, a nurse told her and shut the door.
They didn’t say how Hunter was, Kathryn thought. That can’t be good.
Panic shot through her body. Hunter’s injuries were life-threatening. What if he did not survive?
She fell to her knees, clutching a rosary.
‘Am I going to die?’
After five years as an attending surgeon, Dr. Borden Hooks was familiar with traumatic injuries. When the hospital called him at home, he asked the usual questions: “Gunshot wound? Stabbing?”
“Traumatic shark attack,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
There was no textbook protocol for mending what the fish had done.
Hooks rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center to operate. His patient: 12-year-old Kiersten Yow. He was finishing her surgery when he learned about Hunter.
He, too, thought it unreal that there was a second attack just minutes and miles apart. He was a science guy who knew the odds but he found the two attacks unnerving. His 7-year-old son was starting sailing camp the next day.
He examined Hunter’s arm. Paramedics had removed the good Samaritan’s belt and replaced it with tourniquet that the AirLink nurses had cinched even tighter. All those actions, the doctor knew, had saved Hunter’s life.
Hunter understood the gravity of his wounds. He could see how much blood had oozed from his body.
Am I going to die? he’d asked the paramedics.
You’re going to be fine, came the answer.
Are you saying that because it’s the truth, Hunter asked, or are you just trained to say that?
Hunter’s injury was severe but not as messy as it could have been. The shark’s teeth damaged the bone but it was not broken. The doctor’s main concern was infection; he needed to ensure the wound was cleaned properly. He would have to use a Pulsavac, a machine that spits out water and sucks it up at the same time to irrigate the stump.
He was in awe of the force that had done this.
He walked into the room where Kathryn was waiting to get her to sign a consent form. She was still on her knees in prayer.
We have to hurry, he told her. We have to rush him to surgery to stabilize the artery.
Go, go, go! Kathryn told the doctor.
She watched as nurses rolled Hunter into the operating theater. The first time she had ever seen him was in the baby ward at the University of North Carolina hospital in Chapel Hill. Now she saw him as she never imagined she would. Anesthetized. Intubated.
And yet, his expression was beatific. She found it reassuring; that maybe, he was in a good place.
She leaned in and gave him a kiss.
A mother’s nightmare
In Colorado Springs, Hunter’s mom, Sarah, had not been feeling well all day. She’d gone to an urgent-care facility and returned home with painkillers that made her drowsy.
Later that afternoon, she heard a frantic message from her sister’s son, Jacob, left on her cell phone. He was hysterical..
Hunter has been in an accident, Jacob said.
A car accident? Did Hunter drown? Was she hearing the message right?
Sarah called her mother. Then Hunter and Jacob. No one was picking up. Her heart was thumping; her world, spinning.
She had no idea where Hunter was but she knew she had to fly east. She packed a bag. One pair of jeans, two T-shirts and a gray sweatshirt. She forgot her hairbrush but shoved a month’s worth of vitamins in the bag as though somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she might be in for a long stay.
She laced up a pair of gray Nike running shoes, dashed to the Denver airport and got herself on a Frontier Airlines flight to Raleigh. The adrenaline was so high she felt she could run faster to North Carolina than fly.
Somewhere along the way, she managed to speak with her sister Hilary, who is Jacob’s mom but who didn’t know yet the extent of Hunter’s injuries. Then, she got through to her mother.
Sarah could not fathom what had happened. She thought it was a small shark; that maybe Hunter needed a few stitches.
Is the whole arm gone? she asked her mother.
Did anyone look for it? Could it not be reattached?
I am so sorry, Kathryn replied. I wish it were me.
Sarah tried to picture her son’s arm. It sounds odd now, but she wanted to remember what it looked like. She had given birth to that arm. She saw it for 16 years. And now it was gone.
It felt like a death to her.
The flight seemed a lot longer than the three or so hours it actually took. Sarah landed in Raleigh at 4 in the morning.
An administrator from New Hanover Medical Center had the good sense to meet Sarah. She settled into his car for the drive to Wilmington, thankful she was not alone.
She’d heard from the doctor after Hunter’s surgery. Her son had not needed a transfusion. He was going to live.
She walked into his room with a “delighted to see you” smile. He looked like he did the day he was born, puffy with the fluids that had been pumped into his body. Her eyes met Hunter’s as she perched near his bed and stroked his bandaged stump, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Sarah had tried to process what had happened to Hunter on the way to the hospital. But only now did she fully understand the nature of the injury. Her son would go through life without his dominant arm. The hand he had used to write, to eat, to throw his beloved Frisbee — was gone.
Humor and character intact
A few days later, Hunter gave his first television interview. Everyone wanted to hear what happened. If they expected a description like this one, from Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” they didn’t get it.
“The fish came closer, silent as a shadow….. The snout passed first, then the jaw, slack and smiling, armed with row upon row of serrate triangles. And then the black, fathomless eye, seemingly riveted upon him.”
But Hunter didn’t disappoint his audience. He had his own harrowing account of facing one of the greatest predators of the sea.
He was in waist-deep water when he felt something brush against his lower legs. Was it a stingray? A jellyfish? It felt big.
He started backing up toward the shore. Then something emerged from the water. It, grabbed his arm and climbed its way up. Now he could see its conical head.
It was 6 or 7 feet long. Maybe 8, his cousin would later say.
Hunter watched as the shark slid off with his arm. He chuckled as he recounted the moment for the camera, hearing himself describe the absurd nature of his predicament.
His grandfather, John Weber, heard Hunter was on television talking about the tragedy in the most pragmatic way. Weber wasn’t ready to watch. “I guess I’m not moving as fast as Hunter,” he told his family.
The fact is that humans are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by an unprovoked shark. Perhaps that’s why we are so fascinated when, in that rare instance, it happens.
“I would have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting bit by another shark,” Hunter told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a July interview. In fact, he bought a scratch-off ticket when he returned home.
“Didn’t win anything, though,” he said. “It was unfortunate.”
The way Hunter looked at it, he had two choices: He could let the loss of his arm become completely debilitating and ruin his life. Or he could carry on.
He learned to play video games with a foot pedal. He practiced all over again for his driving test. Manipulating his mom’s car with one arm was hard.
“Beforehand, I had dreams and aspirations,” he said. “There is no reason that should change. It’s strange to think that people would be, like, let’s forget everything I wanted to do and mope and lay down.”
The world would understand if he moped, Cooper told him.
It’s true, Hunter said, that he felt bursts of sadness and had moments in which he pondered: Why did this happen to me?
“But I’ve never been the type to get down.”
He feels no anger at his attacker. The shark, he said, was doing what sharks do — hunting for food.
He thinks it would be interesting to compare circumstances with Kiersten, who has chosen not to be so public with her story.
Before the shark attack, Hunter’s grandfather, whom he calls Papa John, had planned to visit Colorado so they could climb a mountain together. After he learned of Hunter’s loss, Papa John tried to function with one arm. He wrote a poem about the experience. His grandson, he concluded, had already climbed a mountain.
Everything is different, some things near impossible:
taking a shower, buttering toast, opening jars,
typing a text. Again and again,
I found myself using both arms. I think
I have little idea what Hunter is going through,
much less understand what he sees from that mountain.
Hunter’s great-grandfather, Charles Hepburn, was a veteran of World War II and at 90, he’d seen a lot in life. He wrote to Hunter, also in awe.
“Your demonstrated courage entitles you to walk forever with the bravest of men,” he wrote. “You now know that you will face no adversity you cannot conquer. Such knowledge alone is more precious than gold, for gold can only buy things; it cannot buy character.”
Hunter spent three days at the Wilmington hospital and the remainder of June at his grandmother’s house in Durham. He underwent a second surgery at a Duke University hospital and flew back home with his mom.
Last week, schools reopened in Colorado Springs and Hunter returned to his classmates, teachers and friends. He is still waiting for a prosthetic and goes often to see doctors. His family maintains a crowdsourcing page to raise money for his medical bills.
Recently Hunter received a bright green T-shirt from Mike Young, a surfer who helped give aid to Kiersten and organized an Oak Island safety day inspired by the two shark survivors.
Hunter and his mother are grateful to him. They would also like to find the mystery man with the belt who prevented him from bleeding out on the beach.
“Who has a belt on the beach?” Sarah asks. “No one. But he saved Hunter’s life.”
She and Hunter would love to send him a “thank you” card, like the one they sent to Dr. Hooks. On the cover is an image of a shark.
Hunter’s sense of humor is obviously fully intact. His mom says he talks about how cool it will be to have a bionic arm.
She calls the Oak Island trip “Hunter’s Day at the Beach.” It’s a way of distancing herself from something terrible; to treat it as another life event among many.
As for Hunter, he has no trepidation about going back into the ocean, although next time he might try harder to convince his grandmother to take him to Topsail Beach. Or perhaps to the island nation of Fiji in the Pacific. He’d suggested it jokingly the day after he was discharged from the Wilmington hospital, knowing that it was one of the farthest places to which they could travel. It seemed exotic.
Later, his grandmother heard a radio story that mentioned Fiji. She learned that it is known for sharks.