Sun City resident Bob Harmon, 79, has lived in the community since 2005. On a regular basis, he runs his weed-eating string trimmer over the tall grasses along the edge of the lagoon on which he lives. Across the water he can see golfers as they prepare to tee off on the 14th at the Hidden Cypress golf course.
Mark Shalala regularly plays that course. When he stands on the 14th tee – which is elevated above the cart path – he can see the houses and yards across the lagoon while watching the pace of play down the fairway.
On Oct. 4 at about 11 a.m., Shalala was waiting to tee off, and took a glance around.
“It’s a nice view. As I looked across the lagoon, I saw a guy trimming at the edge of the lagoon with a trimmer. I looked away for a moment and then I heard the motor of the trimmer stop. I heard a splash and I looked,” Shalala said. “The guy was gone. I just knew what happened.”
Shouting to his group, he jumped into his golf cart, and raced toward the lagoon to where he’d seen the gardener. At the same time, Harmon was facing the fight of his life.
An alligator had a solid hold on his leg.
“I was moving the weed-eater from right to left like I always do and just got to a certain point. I didn’t see him, because he was under the water. He just lunged out, and the first thing I saw was a big mouth coming after me,” said Harmon three days later. “He grabbed my foot to start with. Obviously, his intent was to take me in with him, and mine was not to go in.”
Harmon fought back. “We battled for a while, and he moved up my leg, and he got a chomp on my thigh and knee,” he said.
Shalala said it was about 200 yards around the lagoon from the tee to Harmon’s yard.
“To drive there must have been three minutes before I got on the scene, and (Bob) had been fighting with his hands and his feet all that time. There he was on the ground, on his back. There was a good-sized gator. I could see the tail of the gator about two or three feet from Bob,” said Shalala. “I could see he was propping himself up. When I first saw him, I realized he lost a toe, bitten off and gone. His other toes didn’t look good either. Most of the damage was on his left side. The gator was not moving, and (Bob) wasn’t moving.”
Harmon wasn’t moving because he had his hands in the gator’s mouth, fighting to keep the jaw from clamping down again.
“His intent was to wait me out, and let me tire,” Harmon said. “I could reach his jaws, and his mouth was open a little bit. And then Mark came around on his golf cart and I said ‘Help.’ He obviously had nothing except his golf clubs, so he picked up his club and just started whacking at him.”
From Shalala’s perspective, both man and gator were at a stand-off that wasn’t going to last long.
“Bob had both of his hands on the gator’s mouth, one on the top and one on the bottom, to get pressure off his leg. And at one point he was actually doing it enough to push the gator’s head away, and that’s when he saw me,” he said.
Shalala, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, spent four years on active duty and served 28 with the National Guard in Albany, didn’t hesitate to act.
“I grabbed a couple of golf clubs. There’s a pretty good slant to the lawn down to the lagoon, and I needed to move Bob. And if the gator turns around, we’re not going to be able to move,” he said. “I took one club and lightly tapped the gator, and he moved about a foot and a half toward the water. I figured out he was going to move more, and then I hit the gator harder and it went into the water.”
Once the gator slid back into its wet habitat, Shalala struggled to get the worn out and bleeding Harmon out of reach of a possible gator return.
Meanwhile, Harmon’s wife, Peg, was inside and unaware of what was going on in her backyard.
“I knew he was out trimming at the water line edge of the lawn. I was in the kitchen, and I saw Mark’s golf cart come into our backyard. I couldn’t imagine why that was. I came out and Mark said, ‘He’s been attacked by an alligator,’ and Bob was on the ground,” she said.
While Peg went inside to call 9-1-1, Shalala began helping the unsteady Harmon around front to the open garage door. Peg came out, talking to the emergency operator.
After getting seated and his left leg propped and wrapped with a clean towel, Harmon said she could just drive him to the emergency room, which Shalala and Peg both nixed immediately.
“Then I knew how close Bob had come to death, and I was oblivious in the kitchen,” Peg said. “Bob really felt that the gator really could have out-waited him. He couldn’t have pried a long time. The PSI on a gator’s mouth is really high, so time was of the essence. That gator started with his toe, and he was working his way up his body.”
Within a few minutes, first responders from the Bluffton Township Fire Department arrived on the scene and took over triage on Harmon’s wounds. He was then rushed to Memorial Health in Savannah.
Harmon returned home two days later, bandaged up with numerous incisions, and one of his first visitors was Shalala.
“I never met him before but we’re close friends now,” Shalala said. “I didn’t question anything. I knew what had happened and just took off. I was just at the right place at the right time.”
Harmon’s softball playing is over for the season, and his gardening routine may change as well. He doesn’t want to get too close to the water again.
“I’m sure he [the gator] saw my delicious-looking leg, and if he had gotten me in the water, he’d have had a really good meal. It felt like an hour, but it was probably only about five minutes or so before it was over,” he said.
As for Shalala’s weapon of opportunity, “I don’t know if he broke any of the clubs because I’d be very happy to reimburse him,” Harmon said.
As Harmon was being transported to the hospital, someone called the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to report the gator as nuisance wildlife, requiring removal and destruction of the creature. As it happened, two gators that inhabit that lagoon were trapped and removed, according to the SCDNR’s Coastal Region Public Information Officer David Lucas.
“We didn’t know which one was the aggressor, so we removed both,” said Lucas. “One ended up being a 7-foot, 9-inch, 100-pound female; the other was a 9-foot, 9-inch, 190-pound male. We examined the stomach contents but found nothing definitive that they had been fed; just normal gator contents.”
Lucas said gators, which are ambush predators, sometimes float close to the edge of the water, and if they see an animal of interest nearby, they will lunge for it.
“We don’t know what prompted the gator,” he said. “Heaven knows what that gator was thinking with the edge trimmer.”
Harmon was among the more fortunate of gator victims.
“Wildlife is unpredictable. You never know what they’re going to do. That’s why we counsel people to just avoid being by the edge of the water unless you have to, and then be very, very aware of the water,” said Lucas. “All things considered that was about as good an end as you could hope for. It could have been much worse.”
For more information about alligators, visit dnr.sc.gov/wildlife.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.