Leeanne Ericson felt a calm come over her, a strange sense of peace as everything went dark, her body pulled deeper into the cool ocean.
Moments earlier she’d felt sharp teeth clamp down on her right leg and, instantly, she understood her situation.
“My first thought (was), ‘It finally happened’.”
Her second thought went to her kids, an 11-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Then she thought of her boyfriend, Dusty Phillips, who at that moment on that late April day was frantically searching for Ericson, screaming her name even as he couldn’t see her.
“You can’t hear underwater, it’s so calm. There’s no noise,” she said. “There’s nothing underwater.”
Yes there is.
A shark, later estimated as between 9 and 12 feet long, was pulling her deeper. She reached down and felt its hard, rough skin. Then she felt something soft, like a cup of Jello-O, what she thinks was its eye.
“I stick my whole hand in the damn thing, as far as I could get it,” she said. “My brain didn’t go ‘let me dig into this to get away.’ I just did it.”
Four months later, Ashley Garcia, general manager at Sunsets Bar & Grill in Capistrano Beach, set down a turquoise blue rum-based drink in front of Ericson and Phillips. A plastic shark peeked out from the top of the glass, its jaws clenching a bright red cherry.
Ericson’s eyes widen. The drink — “Shark Bite” — is named in her honor.
“There’s the blood,” Garcia said, drawing a laugh from Ericson and Phillips as she poured a drizzle of red liquid into their drinks.
Ericson was in the bar this week as part of her effort to make the rounds and say ‘thank you’ to the many south Orange County establishments, like Sunsets, that held fundraisers after hearing about the April 29 attack at Church beach in San Onofre State Park. It was the second shark versus human incident in local waters in less than a year, and it came as shark sightings in the region have become an almost daily phenomenon.
The Orange County Register interview, her first sit down with a newspaper, originally was to take place at Church, a cobblestone beach just south of San Clemente. But the spot was changed the night before; Ericson isn’t quite ready to see the beach where the attack accord, where her life was changed.
But sipping on her cocktail overlooking Capo Beach – now dubbed “Shark Alley” by locals – she looks out at the glistening water and seems at ease.
“A beach I don’t know is better than that beach. I still don’t like – love – the beach like I used to. It’s kind of like a love-hate relationship now,” she said. “I loved the beach, I ached to be in the water all the time.
“Now, I look at it like something that hurt me.”
Not a ripple
The pair scored a campsite right on the sand. They were there to celebrate a cousin’s 14th birthday.
Ericson had spent Saturday afternoon working her shift as a teller at Pacific Marine Credit Union, but got to the sand with enough day light left to put on her wetsuit and fins so she could mess around in the water while Phillips rode waves on his yellow shortboard.
The wind had just kicked up. The water was murky.
They had been out about 15 minutes when they saw a sea lion breach about 10 feet from them.
“He looked a little panicked and a little confused,” Phillips recalled.
“You know what that means,” they joked with each other, about the possibility of a nearby shark.
She came and sat on Phillips’ board and felt something bump against her fin. She didn’t think there was anything under her, and she asked Phillips: “Did you kick my fin?”
Just then, a wave came rolling toward them. Phillips pulled the board forward so he could ride the wave and she splashed nearby.
As he paddled into the wave, he heard a piercing scream. But when he turned back, he saw nothing — Ericson was gone.
“It was glassy,” he said. “There wasn’t even a ripple in the water.”
No one can hear
Phillips wondered if she was joking. But when she didn’t pop up, he knew something was wrong.
“I dove off my board and went as deep as I could,” he said.
He saw nothing.
When he popped up after a second attempt to find her, he saw it — a shark, its tail thrashing on the surface, “like it was feeding on her.”
“That’s when I knew what happened.”
He had two options: swim away to save himself, or search.
“I’m not leaving the water without her.”
Under the water, after Ericson grabbed what she thinks was the shark’s eye, it let go. She remembers the water changing from dark to light as she reached the surface, about 20 feet north of Phillips.
“Once I got direct eye contact with her, I didn’t care about the shark behind me anymore, I just swam right to Leeanne,” he said.
He put her up on his board, his arm wrapped around her near the hip, trying to hold tight on the wound to stop the bleeding, where he could see open flesh and bone from the bottom of her buttocks and down her hamstring to the back of her knee.
“The water was rinsing off all the blood, you could see her bone and everything,” he said. “I was scared, I know people die from stuff like that.”
At one point, she turned to look for the shark and saw her leg — but her mind played tricks on her, turning it into what she describes as a cartoon-like image. Still to this day, that’s what she remembers seeing.
“I don’t want to lose my leg,” she recalled saying to him.
“You won’t babe,” he told her.
She put her head down, exhausted, trying to focus on breathing. He called for help, but the strong wind muffled his plea.
No one on the beach reacted. Kids kept playing in the tidepools, surfers rode waves.
“I remember thinking in my head, no one can even hear us.”
‘I killed her’
A nearby surfer, later identified as Huntington Beach local Jen Adeva, heard his muffled cries and came over to try and help. He lifted the nose of his board out of the water to help them keep moving toward the shore as he struggled to keep Ericson from sinking under. Soon, another surfer, Erik Einertson, rushed over to help.
Friends surfing nearby realized what was happening and ran to the beach, yelling “SHARK!!!” They told people to call 911 and clamored their way back over the slippery and sharp rocks lining the beach to help the couple get to shore.
A group of guys on the beach, including EMT-in-training Thomas Williams, helped put pressure on the wound. Einertson held her hand and prayed.
Phillips collapsed next to her, exhausted.
“I killed her,” he thought to himself. “I pulled her off the board and into the mouth of the shark.”
She was airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. She laid in a coma for about a week while doctors operated to save her leg. The shark had taken out about a foot-long chunk, flaying the flesh down to the bone.
The first day she woke up she started pulling out her tubes, a heavily medicated attempt to leave the hospital. A day later, after she calmed, Phillips returned in the early morning.
He asked if Ericson was angry
“He thought I’d blame him for what happened,” she said. “That whole week I was in a coma, he was worried I’d wake up be mad at him,” she said.
“It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
She spent her 4-year-old twins’ birthday having her sciatic nerve operated on.
For a week after she woke up, Phillips didn’t let her turn on the TV or use her phone. He didn’t want her to see the media frenzy about the woman who was attacked by a shark.
No pity party
Ericson rests her leg, the backside cradled by an opaque plastic brace, on Phillips lap.
As he rubs her shin, gently, she jokes: “Don’t hit my dead foot.”
They use humor to get through the tough times. She’s sometimes lifts her “dead” foot, the one that still has no feeling or movement, toward his face.
Doctors have talked about amputating her leg, worrying it might not function at all or that it could leave Ericson permanently in pain.
Phillips shows a picture of the injury a week after the attack, her hamstring gone, replaced by mangled, bright red meat.
Ericson turns away. She’s not ready to see that.
Recovery remains distant. She can’t sit on the wound without a brace, because there’s nothing but skin – taken from her other thigh – covering the bone and tendon. This week marked the first time she could stand while taking a shower.
And she doesn’t know if her foot will recover, though she notes that the lack of feeling might have a side benefit. She might get hibiscus flower tattoo she’s always wanted but always dodged because of the pain.
“I don’t want the pity party, but… I want people to know the extent of my injuries. People think I’m up walking around, but that’s not the reality.”
Ericson pulls off her brace and removes a piece of cloth protecting the wound.
The area where the shark tore a chunk from her leg and the bottom of her buttocks is apparent, the meat still missing, a purple-hue of skin from her other leg sown on to cover bone and tendons.
She points to notches at the top of the wound – teeth marks, she and experts believe, from where the shark had her pinned in its jaw. She picks at a stitch trying to emerge through the thin skin.
“People are like ‘Oh she can walk,’ she said. “But I can’t pick my leg up. There’s no muscle to pull it up.”
‘In the way’
Phillips tries to not blame himself for the incident, but notes that she wouldn’t have been there if he hadn’t been surfing. She dismisses that, saying she made the choice to enjoy the ocean.
She also jokes if the tables were turned, he’d be gone.
“I would have been on the board, dragging him by the leash behind me,” she said jokingly. “There’s no way I would have brought him in.”
She’s not yet ready to get back in the water, the closest she’s come was putting her feet in hot tub. Returning to the site of the attack will take more time.
“Maybe in a year I can go back,’ she said.
Phillips said a number of factors came into play that day. The water was murky. The shark was in hunting mode. When he pushed her off the board, it caused a commotion.
“I fully believe a shark’s vision is just fine in the water and on clear days like this, it’s fine,” said Phillips, who still surfs several times a week and was back in the water shortly after the incident.
“You will not get attacked. The shark that attacked Leeanne was after the sea lion and was taking it down. That’s why she got drug under.”
Ericson said people should use caution.
“He used to go surfing by himself all the time, now he won’t,” she said. “There should be awareness to what is happening in the water.”
But she doesn’t hold any ill will toward the shark.
“I can’t be mad at that shark, he was just doing what sharks do – trying to eat,” she said.
“I got in the way.”
How much can one bite cost?
When Sunsets owner Damien Collins heard about the attack, he started thinking of ways to help. He asked Garcia to come up with a drink, and she created the “Capistrano Shark Attack,” and proceeds from the drink went to help with Ericson’s mounting bills.
Locals and others raised about $1,000, and will continue to sell the drinks (and drop cash into a donation bucket) to raise more. Another San Clemente restaurant, Cassano’s, also hosted a fundraiser, and surfbrand Roxy donated $10,000 from a swimsuit sale.
“Every cent of it helps,” said Phillips.
A GoFund me account has raised about $128,000, but Ericson is still worried about what insurance won’t cover, what bills from the helicopter or ambulance might come out to, let alone the weeks spent in intensive care or the eight surgeries that were done. Antibiotics alone were $36,000.
“I don’t know,” she said of the eventual cost, a worried look coming over her face.
Ericson said she was shocked, and so thankful, to all the people who made donation.
“I’m so surprised. I didn’t think anyone would care. Who cares about me?” she said. “But apparently, people do.”
She held up the tattered black wetsuit to show where the shark tore into it, dried blood still on the neoprene. She’s in contact with shark experts Ralph Collier and Chris Lowe to piece together what happened, her wound and the ripped suit helping them determine the size and type of the shark.
She’s been featured in medical journals, and requests for interviews are still flooding in. She’s constantly searching the web to learn more about sharks, a newfound obsession.
She’s just stopped taking PTSD medication the doctors prescribed her. She strives to identify negative thoughts as they emerge to stave off depression.
She jokes that she’s been an anomaly before. She was born with an extra toe, taken off as a baby, on the foot she can no longer feel.
Collins suggested to Ericson that surviving a shark attack means she has bigger things to do in this life. Ericson didn’t disagree.
“I’m still trying to figure out what that is.”
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