Shark attack survivor Karin Ulrike Stei gives first-person account of May 9 attack off Vero Beach

Death has spiky teeth.

This I found out on a bright, sunny day at Humiston Beach in Vero Beach — a day like all the others it seemed. Just a lazy day at the beach, vacationing.

As usual, my friend Brigitte and I passed the lifeguard station, nodding politely, and made ourselves comfortable on the beach. No foreboding that one of the lifeguards — Erik Toomsoo — would turn into my hero soon.

Around 11 a.m. May 9, Brigitte and I went in the water to cool off. I always loved swimming in the ocean, enjoying the movement. The water was murky, a lot of sand was floating in the ocean. For about a half hour I took breast strokes parallel to a line with buoys about 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) far from shore. Finally, as I was on the level of the Driftwood I decided to return.

At this moment I was hit by a brutal force.

I realized right away that my left thigh was in the jaws of a shark. Nothing else could have been that powerful. I couldn't see it though, it never surfaced. A deadly phantom.

I did not scream yet. I was shocked. Seconds passed, that felt like hours.

By reflex I pulled my leg away, then a pain — as intense as I never felt it before — shot through my body. I lifted my leg out of the water and saw the gruesome damage.

The shark had ripped a huge part of flesh from my thigh. Blood was gushing from the wound, coloring the water red and creating a giant blood cloud. I knew if I wouldn't reach the coast at once, I would be dead.

I turned to the beach, lifted my right arm and screamed, "Help! Shark."

In the next moment I was paddling towards the shore as fast as I could. Time was stretching endlessly. Mortal fear and the fear of being bitten again were driving me forward.

Then lifeguard Erik Toomsoo reached me. He was helping me swim back, telling me I was out of danger. Other men helped Toomsoo carry me to the beach. Only when I was lying on the sand, I felt safe.

Strangely, I remained calm and conscious the whole time. It felt as if I was trapped in a surrealist film, in which I surprisingly played the lead act.

Many people were rushing to my aid. I remember Shanna Beard vividly.

The off-duty lifeguard and registered nurse was kneeling beside my head, speaking kindly to me, trying to make me feel better. I glimpsed at Erik Toomsoo pressing towels with all his force on my wound to stop the bleeding. A police officer was holding an umbrella, providing the helpers and me with shade.

"75 percent loss." These words, which I picked up through all the commotion, gave me a great chill about the damage. Losing my leg, my life? Was that real? I called out for my friend Brigitte, catching her hand. I felt very tired, but also at great peace.

My life was fading. I heard Brigitte calling out to me.

I came back. It wasn't my time yet.

Too many people worked hard on my rescue, including the crew of the medical helicopter, who spotted the blood in the water. And also the staff of the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce. And many more I don't know about.

It was a chain of help and I want to give them all my deepest appreciation and gratitude. The shark attack and the following rescue were both incredible, the latter one almost miraculously.

Outstanding is still Erik Toomsoo. He courageously swam towards danger, saving the life of a foreigner. Humbly Toomsoo told a reporter, he was just doing his job. And he did.

So thank you, Erik, with all my heart. I hope your work and the accomplishments of your colleagues is recognized accordingly. It is good to know you are there when we need you.

Now I am recovering. I spent two months in clinics, where skin from my right thigh was successfully transplanted on the wound. I hope all the physiotherapy and other medical treatments I am having and will be having in the future will bring me back on my feet.

My two feet.

 

ABOUT THIS STORY

German resident Karin Ulrike Stei gave this exclusive first-person account of her shark attack to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers two months after the incident in Vero Beach. A shark bit her leg on May 9 near Humiston Beach, requiring multiple surgeries. She is recovering in Germany and is walking with crutches.

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