On an overcast day in 2013, Joe Welch, a commercial photographer, and his son, Joey, were polishing off sandwiches at a wildlife refuge in Florida’s Everglades. Joey, who was six at the time, had the day off from school, and Joe, 50, planned for the two of them to spend the day canoeing in the huge swamp, a 45-minute drive from their Pompano Beach home. Joe had never before ventured into the muddy waters, which were famous for alligators. He had researched what to do if they encountered one – just in case. (Bang a paddle against the boat to scare them off, he’d read.)
Welch slathered his son with sunscreen and turned to scan the canoe rental waiver at the concession stand counter, less than 6m from the water’s edge. Seconds later, he heard a splash and a scream.
“Joe struck the alligator’s snout as hard as he could. But it was like punching bricks. ”
Joey had slipped on snake-grass at the edge of the water and fallen in face-first. When Joe whipped around, he saw his son’s right arm in the jaws of an alligator he estimated to be at least 2.4m long and close to 90kg.
Time seemed to stop as Joe ran towards his son and into the water, which was almost a metre deep. As Joey thrashed and screamed, Joe wrapped his left arm across the boy’s chest and began pulling him back towards the bank. With his right hand, Joe struck the alligator’s snout as hard as he could. But it was like punching bricks. “It didn’t even flinch,” he says.
A young man in line at the concession stand ran over, screaming at Joe to pull his son out of the water. But Joe feared what would happen to Joey’s arm if he pulled too hard. “I didn’t want to get in a tug-of-war with an alligator,” he says. He guided Joey up the embankment, dragging the gator along with him.
While Joe dealt blows to the beast’s head, the other man kicked its belly. After three or four kicks, the alligator released its grip on Joey and slithered back into the water. Joe picked up his son and found that he’d suffered only a few cuts and scrapes from his shoulder blade to his wrist – surprisingly there were no puncture wounds. Joe thanked the stranger and sped home. Doctors at a nearby hospital determined that Joey was OK, though Joe had mildly sprained his hand.
Meanwhile, the alligator was captured in the swamp and killed, in accordance with Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations.
Joe has tried to locate the Good Samaritan who helped save his son, but he has learned through enquiries at the wildlife refuge and the US Fish and Wildlife Service only that the man was a kickboxer from Spain who had been in the country visiting family. “He’s like an angel,” Joe says.
His son’s resilience has amazed Joe. A week after the accident, the child went with his class on a field trip to a wildlife sanctuary. His teacher, who watched him closely at the alligator exhibit, told Joe his son acted like any other little boy. “Because of my dad, I feel less and less afraid of alligators,” says Joey. “He’s like my bodyguard.”