How a woman survived a savage crocodile attack

8 min read

How a woman survived a savage crocodile attack
Crocodiles can be some of the most deadly animals on the planet. Here, Reader's Digest looks back at its archives to one crocodile attack in 1994
The day had been hot and humid, and Sandy Rossi looked forward to her customary pre-dinner swim. With no running water at the remote camp in Africa, everyone bathed in the Epulu River. Sandy, 27, had arrived three months before to be tutor and nanny for the two children of John and Terese Hart, naturalists from New York working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sandy, a former volunteer aid worker, told her parents back home in Missouri that the job was perfect for her.
On March 14, 1994, Sandy took Bekah, ten, and JoJo, three, into the water. Ken Cochrane, a 28- year-old research assistant from California, joined them.
Sandy looked at her watch: 6.10pm. "Time to get out. It's going to be dark soon," she called. Ken herded the reluctant children ashore while Sandy waded out waist-deep, lathering up her thick, shoulder-length hair. Bending forward, she rinsed it with both hands.

The crocodile attacks

A snout and two yellow reptilian eyes broke the surface of the river. The beast sensed prey in the water. Off in the twilight, it sighted splashing. Submerging without a ripple, the eight-foot reptile tucked its clawed and webbed feet against its 21-stone body. Its powerful tail drove it swiftly through the murky water.
Whoomph! Knocked off her feet, Sandy tumbled underwater. A crushing pain in her left forearm took her breath away. She felt a malevolent, primal presence beside her. I've been grabbed by a crocodile!

Into the water

Instinctively, she thought first of the children. I've got to warn Ken. Pushing her feet against the sandy river bottom, she thrust her head to the surface. Ken stood ten feet away, knee-deep, his back to her. Behind him, Sandy saw the children on the river-bank reaching for their towels. "Crocodile!" she gasped. Ken shot her a disapproving look. "Don't even joke about that," he admonished, aware that attacks are uncommon.
The crocodile jerked her under again, savaging her like a rag doll. Its jaws were studded with 70 wicked teeth designed to penetrate flesh and hold a victim underwater until it drowned. She felt the bones in her forearm grind sickeningly. I'm going to be dragged off and eaten by this thing and Ken doesn't believe me!
Reaching over the snout with her free arm, she clasped the fingers of her left hand protruding out of its jaws and locked her arms together. Again she pushed with her legs, staggering upright. Breaking the surface, she screamed, "Crocodile!"
Ken froze. Sandy stood in waist deep water, straining to hold up the great, ugly green head, its terrifying jaws clamped around her left arm. In a heartbeat she was gone.

Ken tries to rescue Sandy

Ken dived into the churning water, reaching her as she emerged spluttering, "It's got my arm!" Getting behind her, he grabbed her shoulders and began pulling her backwards towards the bank.
Suddenly, the water stilled. Ken knew crocodiles rarely give up their prey. From such watery ambushes, the reptiles kill more than 400 people a year. Ken's hand grazed something underwater. A chill ran up his spine as he realised it was the crocodile's snout. He fingered rows of frightful teeth clamping Sandy's wrist. Oh my God, it's still got her.
Desperately, he tried to prise the jaws apart, but it was as if they were welded shut. Without warning, the crocodile exploded into a frenzied roll, jerking Sandy away. Ken lunged for her waist and held on tight.

Sandy and Ken change their plan

If I don't let go it will rip her arm off. Reluctantly he released her and watched her corkscrew underwater, a blur of honey-blonde hair and pale face entwined around the thrashing animal. He hovered over her spinning body, helpless against the strength of this monster. How do you fight a crocodile with your bare hands?
"Anger at the brute ripping her body apart created a fierce determination to survive"
The sudden, wrenching torque snapped the bones in Sandy's upper arm like twigs. Anger at the brute ripping her body apart welled up through her fear and pain, and with it came a fierce determination to survive. It can have my arm, she resolved, but not my life. I can't die like this!

Sandy fights back

Quick thinking and a cool head had got Sandy out of tough situations before. Once, in Mali as a volunteer, she was attacked by killer bees, and narrowly escaped injury by jumping into a ditch and pulling her jacket over her head. Now she struggled to remain calm. What do I know about crocodiles? A scene from the film Crocodile Dundee flashed before her. Crocs drown their prey in a death roll, Mick Dundee had said. It's not just trying to drag me off, Sandy now realised. It's trying to drown me.
Abruptly, the spinning ceased. The reptile lay motionless, holding her underwater. Planting her feet on the bottom, she pushed upwards.
"Hang on," Ken encouraged as her head surfaced and she filled her lungs. "We'll get you away from this thing." She recalled hearing that punching predators on the nose made them let go. She rained blows on the beast's snout with her free arm.
Ken, probing beneath the water, located the crocodile's bony eye sockets. He gouged hard with his thumbs, but they just bent against a triple layer of impenetrable, leathery eyelids. Cursing, he tore at the great reptile's throat with both hands. The creature never flinched.

Ken and Sandy fight back together

By now, the crocodile had drawn them nearly 25 feet from the riverbank. Ken was afraid of ripping Sandy's arm off if he pulled on her, so he seized the reptile's head and hauled, towing the crocodile towards the bank. Sandy helped as best she could, trying to ignore the crushing pain in her arm.
"By now, the crocodile had drawn them nearly 25 feet from the riverbank"
Ken pounded the beast with short jabbing rights, but it was like punching the front of a tank. Sandy's face was pale, contorted in pain, but Ken saw her jaw set in grim determination. She's counting on me. I can't let her down.
Panting with exertion, inch by inch, they gained a foot, then a yard, then another. When they reached waist-deep water, the bank was tantalisingly near. Ken looked over his shoulder. Just six more feet. Whoosh! The crocodile snapped into another death roll, batting Ken aside.

Sandy and Ken see hope on the riverbank

Sandy gritted her teeth as she went under. I'll tuck and roll with it, then when it stops, I won't be dead. With her good arm she tried to protect her head from the big stones littering the river bottom. One, two . . . she counted the rolls . . . three, four . . . ride it out then get air . . . five, six, seven . . . stopped!
Ken hauled her up. He glanced over his shoulder at the riverbank, his heart sinking; they were chest-deep again. It would be easy for the crocodile to sweep them out into midstream. Frantically, he and Sandy heaved a yard or two for shore, then the crocodile spun wildly again.

Sandy is drawn under again

This time Sandy had managed to fill her lungs before being dragged under. She counted rolls. Two . . . five . . . eight . . . Sweet Jesus, help me, it isn't going to stop, she prayed. At ten rolls the crocodile finally lay still.
Lungs bursting, she fumbled for the river bottom with her feet. Nothing. She flailed out in every direction in the murky water. Sickened and disorientated, she couldn't tell up from down. A stream of air bubbles trickled past her face. Follow them up.
"The crocodile is the closest living reptile relative of the dinosaur"
A watery image of Ken's face appeared above her; she reached for it, but the crocodile held her in deep water now. She never knew it was possible to hold her breath so long. Scissor-kicking, she lunged for Ken with her right hand, catching his wrist. She hauled with all her remaining strength as he pulled her up.
Her face broke the surface, mouth wide, sucking great, sobbing breaths. With his own six-foot-two frame neck-deep, Ken knew Sandy could no longer touch the bottom.
Not once had the great reptile surfaced. There was no need; it could stay submerged for up to an hourwhile its victim drowned. The brute's walnut-size brain knew nothing of giving in. When a crocodile, the closest living reptile relative of the dinosaur, has prey in its jaws, no creature on earth can make it release its death grip.

The crocodile continues its attack

The beast snapped into another series of rolls. Now there was no resisting the current as they spiralled downstream round a bend.
After the bend the water became shallower. Ken stood there thigh-deep, braced against a flood-gauge pole, wrestling the crocodile's head.
Growing even more frenzied, the creature twirled Sandy with such fury that she smashed into the flood gauge, snapping it in half. The broken point speared through her left shoulder, driving deep into her rib cage and narrowly missing her lungs. Stabbing pain shot through her. If you black out you'll die, she thought, fighting for consciousness.
"He was locked in a macabre tug of war with the crocodile for Sandy's life"
Ken grabbed her waist, heaving backwards for the shore like a man possessed. With no thought now of saving her arm, he was locked in a macabre tug of war with the crocodile for Sandy's life. Heels dug into the mud, he strained against the monster as it lashed its great tail, its flailing razor-sharp claws slashing his legs, neither man nor beast giving an inch.
Sandy steeled herself and pulled as hard as she could, her legs kicking for the beach. Backs to the shore, legs hammering into the mud, they suddenly rocketed out of the water and sprawled on to land. Dazed, they lay with chests heaving.

Sandy and Ken make it to land

In the dim light, Ken looked down and saw a bloody, chewed stump of bone and muscle where Sandy's left forearm had been; what was left of her hand dangled by a few strands of sinew and skin. The ferocity of the attack had rammed her elbow and broken upper- arm bones into her shoulder, swelling her upper arm to three times its normal size.
The creature rose out of the water, swinging its huge head back and forth. It opened its jaws wide and gulped down Sandy's forearm. Then, with its cold reptilian eyes locked on Sandy, it slithered back into the river.
They were only a foot from the water's edge, but before Ken could move Sandy he had to apply a tourniquet. Otherwise, she'd bleed to death. Using a T-shirt, he tied a tourniquet tight around Sandy's arm, tucking what remained of her left hand against the pressure point.
Together, they ran up the embankment. At the crest, relief flooded over Sandy. It can't get me now.

Sandy is rushed to the village clinic

Sandy's recovery was not assured, however. She had lost a lot of blood. At 6.50 that evening, Ken drove her to the village clinicwhere a proper tourniquet was attached, and she was given antibiotics. It was 8pm before Sandy was placed on a mattress in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and Ken set off across the rough jungle roads.
They arrived at the field hospital three hours later, where a Dutch doctor amputated the remains of her hand.

Sandy is flown to Nairobi

The next day she was flown to Nairobifor more expert care, but the doctors there advised only rest, large doses of antibiotics and a transfusion to boost her strength before she returned to the United States for special surgery. Ken had the same blood type, so he donated some. "We're blood brothers now," Sandy quipped.
A week after the attack, the pair slipped out of the hospital in Nairobi and headed for the Carnivore Restaurant, which serves game. Sandy grinned wickedly and ordered crocodile, adding, "I'm going to eat an arm's worth."
"With a custom-made prosthetic device designed by NASA, Sandy plans to return to Africa this October"
Sandy returned to the United States, where surgeons took muscle from her back and skin grafts from her leg to fashion tissue around the raw bone to support a prosthesis.
With a custom-made prosthetic devicedesigned by NASA, Sandy plans to return to Africa this October and continue working for the Harts. "Ken risked his life to save mine," she says. "He's like a big brother to me." Says Ken, "She's alive because she refused to give up."
Banner credit: Crocodile (SonerCdem)
This article is taken from the RD Archives from July 1994.
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