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15-year-old girl loses hand and leg in shark attack in Florida

A teenager lost a hand and a leg in one of several shark attacks in an area along the Florida Panhandle on Friday.

Lulu Gribbin was among at least five of her friends, all with their mothers from Birmingham, Alabama, visiting Rosemary Beach and searching for sand dollars on a sandbar when the tragedy occurred, her mother, Ann Blair Gribbin, wrote on CaringBridge.

When the 15-year-old recounted the story after her surgeries, she told her mother that the shark had first bitten her hand and then her leg before attacking her friend's foot. Lulu said that a man pulled her out of the waist-deep water by her other arm and carried her to shore with the help of a younger man.

Once on shore, two doctors and a nurse applied tourniquets to the teen's wounds, which her mother said was “critical” in saving her daughter's life. Lulu was then flown by helicopter to a hotel in Pensacola, where doctors later told Ann Blair that the shark had bitten off Lulu's left hand and that they had to amputate her right leg “halfway from the knee to the hip,” the mother wrote on CaringBridge. She also said Lulu lost two-thirds of her body's blood in the incident.

“Of course no one wants this for their child, but she is alive,” wrote Ann Blair.

This was Ann Blair's first mother-daughter beach trip with her twins Lulu and Ellie. She was returning to the beach from lunch when she noticed a group of people surrounding someone lying on the ground. Ellie found them and said it was Lulu.

“I saw the wounds on her leg and began to scream,” wrote Ann Blair. “She was lifeless, her eyes were closed, her mouth was white and pale. The wound on her leg, or whatever was left of her leg, looked like something out of a movie.”

When Lulu was flown off the beach, Ann Blair drove an hour and 20 minutes to the hospital in Pensacola, and when she arrived, Lulu was already in surgery.

After the operation, doctors initially told Ann Blair that Lulu would need to be intubated for about a week and that at least four surgeries would be needed to complete the amputations. But on Saturday, Lulu's medical team was able to remove her breathing tube.

“After she settled in, her first words to us were, 'I did it.' And boy, did she,” wrote Ann Blair.

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Lulu was one of three people injured in shark attacks in the area Friday afternoon, prompting Walton County to temporarily close its beaches. In the first attack, a 45-year-old woman in Watersound lost her left forearm. Lulu and the third victim, a 17-year-old girl, were attacked about 90 minutes and four miles away. The latter suffered lacerations to her right foot, South Walton Fire District Chief Ryan Crawford said at a news conference.

Ann Blair says Lulu will have to undergo multiple surgeries and her life will change forever. She said the teenager is “afraid of not fitting in and that people will make fun of her,” so she asked for prayers for a quick healing and understanding and that Lulu will realize “that her hand and leg do not define who she is.”

“I also want to pray for all the girls who were with her on the beach and the trauma they endured,” wrote Ann Blair. “Sweet Lulu is more worried about her friends than herself, which is a testament to her character… She is truly a miracle. We have a long way to go, and our journey is just beginning!”

Shark attacks occur every year in the Sunshine State, but are still considered rare. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says people in the state are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than bitten by a shark. They also point out that experts believe the increase in shark bites in recent years is more related to the increase in human visitors than to shark activity.

Three consecutive bites, however, are even rarer, especially in Walton County. The Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File shows that before Friday's three bites, there had been only one bite in the area since 1882.

Anna Harden

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