Shark kills woman in Central Coast attack
50-year-old bitten while swimming among sea lions
Maria Alicia Gaura, Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Lifeguards risked all to save victim
Swimmer killed by great white shark 15-18 feet in length
Shark kills woman in Central Coast attack
(08-20) 04:00 PST Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County -- A woman swimming among sea lions in the ocean off the Central Coast town of Avila Beach died Tuesday morning after she was bitten by what authorities believe was a large great white shark.
Deborah B. Franzman, 50, was attacked as she swam alone within sight of beachgoers on the Avila Beach pier and of about 30 lifeguards training on the beach.
The shark struck from below, breaching the surface and tearing most of the tissue from Franzman's left thigh. Although no one saw the entire animal, a witness saw a gray fin in the churning water, and authorities said the nature and severity of the attack left little doubt it was a white shark.
"The bite was fairly massive," said Robert Lea, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "The white shark is one of the few animals that could make a bite that large. From the description witnesses gave, everything indicates" it was a white shark.
Should the autopsy slated for today confirm that Franzman was killed by a shark, it would be the first fatal shark attack along the California coastline since 1994. Two men were attacked by white sharks off Bay Area beaches last year, but both survived.
Despite the animals' fearsome reputation as relentless predators, attacks by great white sharks -- and all sharks, for that matter -- are exceedingly rare. There have been 106 shark attacks along the West Coast since the Department of Fish and Game began keeping statistics in 1952. Just 10 have been fatal.
All of the deaths occurred in California, and at least nine involved great white sharks, officials said.
Authorities closed the picturesque beach in Avila Beach as well as those in Cayucos, Morro Bay, Oceano and Pismo Beach immediately after the 8:15 a.m. attack. The beaches reopened at midday, drawing hundreds of visitors, but authorities barred people from entering the water until further notice.
Avila Beach is a beach town of 2,300 people in San Luis Obispo County 241 miles south of San Francisco. Franzman lived in the nearby town of Nipomo and was a regular at the beach, officials said.
Her teenage son, Alex Franzman, said his mother taught philosophy and ethics at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. She was a strong athlete who swam in the ocean three or four times weekly. She was often joined by friends, but she swam alone Tuesday when none showed up, he said.
Her partner, who declined to comment, watched from shore as Franzman ventured into the sea. Franzman was about 75 yards from shore and 200 yards south of Avila Pier in water roughly 20 feet deep when the attack occurred, officials said. Authorities said she was well within the swimming boundary.
As she swam, more than two dozen local lifeguards were training and competing in shows of skill just north of the pier.
SWIMMING WITH SEA LIONS
Witnesses told investigators that Franzman, clad in a wetsuit and fins, was swimming among a pod of sea lions when the mammals suddenly vanished and something large and gray breached the water.
A friend of Franzman's screamed, "A shark's got her! A shark's got her," bringing five lifeguards dashing off the pier, said Casey Nielsen, head of the San Luis Harbor District, which has jurisdiction over the beach.
One grabbed a passer-by's cell phone and called 911. The others dove into the water despite having no rescue gear and little idea what might be waiting for them, Nielsen said.
"It was heroism," he said. "They knew someone was bit, and they went into the water and brought her to shore anyway. My first thought would have been 'Stay out of the water.' "
The four men, who could not be reached for comment, pulled Franzman ashore and loaded her into a pickup truck, where they began cardiopulmonary resuscitation and tried to stop the bleeding.
"A bunch of local lifeguards come out and drag her in, and she was bleeding. It was bad," eyewitness David Abbott, his voice cracking, told KCOY-TV in Santa Maria.
Paramedics pronounced Franzman dead at the scene.
SIGNS POINT TO GREAT WHITE
Experts said the attack is typical of the white shark, an "ambush predator" that strikes quickly and from below with a devastating bite.
One witness told investigators the animal bit the woman twice, but that could not be confirmed.
"It appears she was bitten once primarily in the left leg, but there also is a wound on the right leg," said Lea of Fish and Game.
Few animals other than the white shark are capable of so large a bite, he said.
The bite in all likelihood severed Franzman's femoral artery, contributing to her death, Lea said. Had the bite missed the artery, she might have survived the attack but would have undoubtedly lost her leg, he added.
Lea said he will not know for sure it was a white shark until he examines the woman's wounds, which also may shed light on the size of the animal.
"We know it's large, and large for a white shark can be anywhere from 12 to 18 feet," he said. Such an animal could easily top two tons, he said.
Sharks do not prey upon humans, Lea said. Instead, researcher believe most attacks are "a case of mistaken identity" in which the animals mistake humans - - especially those wearing fins or riding surfboards -- for seals or sea lions, their primary prey.
The most recent California shark attack occurred last year on Thanksgiving Day, when Michael Casey was bitten by a 16-foot white shark while enjoying the surf at Salmon Creek Beach in Sonoma County.
Casey, a Santa Rosa deputy city attorney, was bitten at least twice in the legs; the resulting wounds required more than 80 staples to close.
Another surfer, Lee Fontan of Bolinas, was bitten four times by a 12- to 14- foot great white on April 30, 2002, near Stinson Beach in Marin County.
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