ORLANDO (Florida) • A US family's desperate search for their toddler son, who was snatched by an alligator off the shore of a lake at a Disney resort, has ended with divers finding the two-year-old's body in murky water.
The nightmare at the Disney World complex is the latest horror to hit the central Florida vacation city of Orlando, which is reeling from last Sunday's massacre at a gay nightclub in which 49 people were killed.
Walt Disney World said it had shut down all of its Florida resort beaches and marinas as a precaution after the incident - the first such death in its 45-year history.
The boy's father tried frantically to save him during the attack on Tuesday night at a lakeside beach at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa but could not pry the toddler from the alligator's grasp.
"His body was completely intact... The body has now been turned over to the Orange County medical office for an autopsy," Sheriff Jerry Demings told reporters.
EVERYWHERE IN FLORIDA
There are about 1.3 million wild alligators in Florida, according to an estimate from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That is more than 22 per 2.5 sq km and about one for every 15 residents.
"They likely exist in every waterway in our state," said Mr Kenneth Krysko of the Florida Museum of Natural History's herpetology division.
Alligators prefer freshwater lakes and slow-moving rivers and their wetlands, but can also be found in brackish, or slightly salty, water.
Locals have spotted the reptiles in swimming pools and even garages, according to the commission, which receives more than 15,000 alligator complaints a year on average.
HUMAN ATTACKS RARE
Alligators naturally fear humans, wildlife experts say.
Only 23 people in Florida have died from unprovoked alligator attacks since 1948 as of April this year, according to the commission. There have been 383 non-fatal bites reported in that time.
BECOMING A NUISANCE
The reptiles become a threat, or "nuisance alligators", when people feed them.
Florida law prohibits the feeding of alligators because that removes their innate fear of humans. People can receive a US$500 (S$675) fine for doing so. The commission allows some 7,000 nuisance alligators to be killed each year.
While rare, attacks are more likely to happen at night.
"That is generally the time that alligators increase their feeding rate," said the commission's alligator research biologist Allan Woodward, adding that at night the reptiles can "hunt under the cover of darkness for animals that live on land and come to the water to drink".
Mr Woodward added that alligators eat more in the summer when it's hot - just as vacationers flock to waterways to cool off.
He said the toddler most likely drowned. His body was found in water about 1.8m deep just 10m to 15m from where he was taken. The boy was identified as Lane Graves of Elkhorn, Nebraska - a suburb of Omaha. His parents are Matt and Melissa Graves.
"Of course, the family was distraught but also, I believe, somewhat relieved that we were able to find their son with his body intact," Mr Demings said.
The alligator struck as the child was playing in about 30cm of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon outside the Grand Floridian. The lagoon is man-made but connected to a natural lake, and alligators - common in Florida - can travel over land.
The boy's father fought the alligator - estimated to be between 1.2m and 2.1m long, according to reports - but the animal and child disappeared under water, officials said.
Mr Bill Wilson, visiting from Indiana, saw the incident from the balcony of his Grand Floridian room and said the attack unfolded in less than 30 seconds. Within a minute, the alligator and boy were gone.
"I looked over and here comes one of the lifeguards. He said, 'Everybody get out of the water.' The mother was there and she was frantic, running up and down looking," Mr Wilson told the Orlando Sentinel.
Mr Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said: "As a parent and a grandparent, my heart goes out to the Graves family during this time of devastating loss."
Rescuers used sonar, infrared cameras, floodlights and a helicopter in their search. At least five alligators had been captured and were being analysed, the authorities said, adding that one of them might be the one that attacked Lane.
"Remember, it is Florida. And alligators are indigenous to this region of the country," Mr Demings said.
Mr Nick Wiley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service said there was a no-swimming sign at the lake but no warning about alligators.
Two days before the nightclub massacre, singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on the popular television show The Voice, was shot and killed at Orlando's Plaza Live Theatre during a meet- and-greet event with fans. The gunman later killed himself.
"The past three or four days have been horrendous for our community," Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said.