As a writer I became drawn into this tragic story by a priest friend who was the first on the scene of the attack. It aired on Shark Week.
Stricken in a Silent Sea
The ocean reflected a veneer of pale clouds creeping toward the horizon; not quite ominous, yet just dark enough to dim the once glittering surface. There would be no sunset to enjoy tonight in Virginia Beach. The veiled sun made it difficult to guess the time. It was Sunday, September 2nd, 2001.
Schools of menhaden and herring flitted nervously over the water - the prey
of pursuing red drum and striped bass. Oftentimes, shifting sandbars formed just off this section of the beach providing a respite from the incessant surf. Though the Atlantic seemed a placid pond compared to its legendary reputation as the fiercest ocean, she had been tamed, at least for now.
As the evening approached, ten-year-old David Peltier and his father, Richard, from Richmond, Virginia, stood on a sandbar 50 yards offshore of Sandbridge Beach, a remote coastal community in the City of Virginia Beach. Richard had been teaching David how to balance on his surfboard. It was almost 6 p.m.
Having enjoyed a relaxing, sun-filled week retreat with friends, pastor Msgr. Kevin Hart stepped onto the deck for one last look. He thought it nice to see a father and son
playing together. As he turned to leave, he heard screaming and spotted something unexpected: red, a crimson tide overtaking the slate-gray sea. He flung himself down the
deck stairs and sprinted to help the father tug David’s leg from the gaping maw of a five-foot shark. A bluish-gray fin and snout protruded from the water. “How can this be happening?” thought Kevin. It seemed so unreal, yet the blood continued to seep through the water, lapping over David’s surfboard.
The shark released David from its jaws after his father hit it on the head. When the boy was dragged up onto the beach, Kevin saw massive puncture and tearing wounds on the backside of his leg. “Apply pressure,” the lifeguard yelled. Kevin, having almost attended medical school, favored a tourniquet as the artery seemed to be gushing blood, but the others resisted. “Go to sleep,” instructed Richard. “No,” shouted Kevin. “Keep him awake! He’s going into shock.”
Twenty-seven years of priesthood had exposed Hart to many unusual challenges, but never anything as tragic and grisly as a shark attack. He prayed over David and hoped.
Later, Richard recounted that the water was just clear enough to notice the shark, its fin and its bluish back. He had immediately called his three boys to climb onto their
surfboards. As he leaned over to pick David up, the shark mauled the boy.
After an agonizing twenty-five minutes, an EMS team arrived and rushed David to the hospital. He was in critical condition all night long. There were shark bites all along his leg. The attack opened a 17-inch gash severing an artery in David’s left thigh, resulting in life-endangering blood loss, a hospital spokesman said. He was taken to Sentara Virginia Beach Hospital and then to Children’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:45 a.m.
Maylon White, Curator for the Virginia Marine Science Museum, said sharks typically found in Virginia Beach waters are smaller varieties typically 4-to-6 feet long, such as the sandbar, sand tiger and hammerhead species. “Sandbar sharks are not usually aggressive,” White said. Larger species, such as tiger and bull sharks, are rarely found, he said. White thought a five to six-foot sandbar shark could have been responsible for the attack.
Forty-nine shark attacks, including the one in Virginia Beach, had been reported in 2001 to the International Shark Attack File, based at the University of Florida. Thirty-eight of those were in the United States, twenty-eight in Florida. Only five shark attacks –none of them fatal - had been recorded in Virginia in 30 years. The Center covers data around the world on shark attacks since the mid-1950s.
Bruce Edwards, the city's director of Emergency Medical Services, said they had no idea what could have brought the shark so close in to shore. “This is such an anomaly. I've lived here all my life and I have never heard or seen anything like this before. We're not exactly sure.”
Only an eighth-of-a-mile south of the attack site, a popular fishing pier juts far out into the water, its angled, stilt-like legs standing up to the onslaught of the oftentimes fierce waves. Prior to the attack a rusty, bent sign hung at the pier’s gate: “No Shark Chumming.” But soon after the attack, it inexplicably disappeared. Some believe chumming off the pier attracted this shark to the scene.
Sharks can detect some chemicals at concentrations of around one-part-per 25 million, and experts claim they've seen sharks go into a frenzy over a single drop of blood in a 2,000-gallon tank. They can smell and taste even the smallest amount of blood from over a mile away and trace it back to its source. The proximity, calm water, time of attack and aggressive chumming may have created the “perfect storm” of conditions to produce Virginia Beach’s first shark fatality.
Six months later The Discovery Channel produced a segment for Shark Week in which Richard and Kevin met at the attack site. They had no time for such association during the frenzied attack. The film crew replayed the frantic 911 call as the rescuers teared up.
A wreath, hung on the rusty bulkhead, marked the site. Since then, a newly pumped-in beach leaves the weathered memorial covered by twelve-feet of sand. Though the sun- bleached plastic flowers are now buried, the memory of David Peltier will forever remain on the surface.
© 2019 Eddie Argauer