NEW PORT RICHEY — The attack lasted three screams, each amplified by the microphone at Jeff Quattrocchi's mouth.
The first came when the alligator's jaws snapped back, sinking teeth into Quattrocchi's right forearm. The second, as he thrashed in the murky water beside the 8-foot beast, trying to shake free. The third, just before the gator let go.
Lisa Cruz and her daughter, Tiffani, 11, thought at first this sudden act had all been planned. Quattrocchi, 45, had told the Cotee River Seafood Festival audience Sunday afternoon that he was a veteran alligator handler, traveling from Kissimmee to venues nationwide under the show name "Swampmaster."
"He was yelling, but people thought he was joking around," Cruz said. "When we saw the blood, we knew it wasn't part of the show anymore."
Onlookers at Sims Park, including at least a dozen children, backed away from the pen set up near Orange Lake, Cruz said. Police officers patrolling downtown began to move people along. Quattrocchi wrapped a towel around his arm before wrestling the American alligator, which was twisting in a frenzied "death roll," into a cage at the border of the pen.
Quattrocchi's right biceps was "gushing pretty badly," New Port Richey police Officer Greg Williams said, and it looked like he might have cut his left hand holding the gator in submission. He asked officers to watch his camera equipment, Williams said, and apologized to the audience for the show's early end.
A helicopter flew Quattrocchi to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where he was treated for severe cuts and released Monday evening. Williams and animal trapper Vernon Yates bound the gator's jaws with duct tape before transporting it to Yates' shelter in Seminole, where it continued "being his ornery self" in an aluminum stock trailer, Yates said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided the gator would not be killed, blaming the attack on "significant handler error," spokesman Gary Morse said.
The Times could not locate Quattrocchi on Monday. He advertises online that he has been bitten at least a dozen times, including by a 265-pound alligator at St. Petersburg's Sunken Gardens in 1994. That won't stop officials from allowing him to take his gators, including a 3-footer used for children's photos, from the shelter after the commission's investigation finishes, Morse said.
Whether the gator is used again for entertainment is up to Quattrocchi. The alligators in his shows, he told the audience, are taken from nuisance alligator trappers and used for only about a week. Any longer than that, the gators lose aggression and the audience loses interest. This alligator's first show, Williams said, was Saturday.
Cruz and her daughter left the pen Sunday and had a long conversation about staying away from alligators, she said. Tiffani wanted to drive to the hospital to check on Quattrocchi, to make sure he still had an arm, but they decided against it.
Her main concern, though, was for the gator's safety.
"She didn't want it killed because it was not his fault," Cruz said.
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.