Triathlete survives shark attack in California

Maria Korcsmaros, a 52-year-old triathlete and mother of three, survived a shark attack Sunday in Corona del Mar. She had wounds in a half circle across her torso, teeth marks from her upper right shoulder in the back to her pelvis in front and to the other side of her buttocks in the back.Several ribs were fractured. A lung was punctured. She lost no less than a liter of blood. Doctors looked for teeth that might’ve still been in her body.


Sign at Corona del Mar beach
Sign at Corona del Mar beach

She lived only because of her own quick thinking, strong work from a pair of Newport Beach lifeguards who luckily were close at hand, and medical experts who responded well to a trauma none had seen first-hand.

“It was life before limb,” said Dr. Philip Rotter, director of orthopedic trauma and chairman of orthopedics at Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.

Details of the attack emerged Tuesday as Rotter and other experts offered an inside look at what the swimmer endured Sunday and how she was treated.

They talked about how lifeguards pulled her from the water and treated her appropriately, and how emergency physicians and others later had to spring into action to treat a woman who had a tourniquet wrapped around her arm to slow the flow of blood spilling from her body.

Based on the description of the wound, local shark expert Chris Lowe, who runs The Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, thinks the shark was an adult, likely more than 10 feet long.

“I can tell you that’s probably not a pup.”

As medical experts discussed the events that saved Korcsmaros, Newport Beach lifeguards on Tuesday re-opened beaches between Balboa Pier and the Wedge, a stretch of water closed to swimmers since the attack. Swimmers returned to the water around noon, after lifeguards had looked into the ocean from boats and from overhead, in a helicopter, to see if any sharks remain in the area.

Corona del Mar, where the attack occurred, was opened back up Wednesday morning.

Lifeguards also described what happened during the human-vs. shark rescue.

Newport Beach Captain Mike Ure and officer Andy Matsuyama, acting as the deck hand, were patrolling the water in a boat when they noticed water splashing around a swimmer who was about 500 feet from shore.

Korcsmaros, a Corona resident originally from Canada, was out for a mild 1.5-mile training swim, nothing much for the long-time triathlete who in 2008 completed a full Iron Man triathlon. She was training Sunday near the buoy line, a place regularly frequented by ocean swimmers and lifeguards who train in the area. It’s also an area, near the entrance to Newport Harbor, where sea lions like to hang out.

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She felt just one bite. It was bad, but she somehow managed to tread water and raise her arm into the air, signaling to lifeguards who were about 30 yards away.

Within 30 seconds, they were helping her into the boat, said Newport Beach Chief Lifeguard Rob Williams.

“It was very fortunate we had a boat patrolling in the area that witnessed the tail end of the incident,” he said.

The two lifeguards saw nothing near her in the water – no shark or other animal. They knew she hadn’t been hit by a boat because theirs was the only nearby vessel.

They got her into the boat and rushed into the harbor to the Orange County Sheriff Harbor Patrol’s dock.

“They were trained as (emergency medical technicians) and had the medical background to provide support before we transported her to the medics,“ Williams said.

“It’s part of our program we put in place, for any kind of incident, whether it’s a shark incident or medical aid or a rescue,” Williams added. “They did a great job; they did exactly what they should have done.”

When Korcsmaros arrived at Orange County Global Medical Center, doctors immediately believed the injuries were consistent with a shark bite.

“If you want to draw a picture of a bite, that’s what it would look like,” said Dr. Humberto Sauri, the center’s trauma medical director.

It took several hours to stabilize Korcsmaros. She was given a transfusion to replace lost blood and the wall of her abdomen was repaired. Doctors repaired her lungs and made sure she had no injuries to her heart. They also searched for, but didn’t find, teeth that the shark might’ve left in her body.

The doctors had never dealt with a shark attack victim, but they treated her like any other person with a severe injury.

“A laceration is a laceration. An open chest wound is an open chest wound,” said Sauri. “It’s an immediate, life-threatening injury.”

The swimmer is now stabilized and could be hospitalized for the next week. She’s being watched for infection.

“It’s an animal’s mouth in sea water. At this point, she’s on antibiotics and we’ll be monitoring her closely,” Sauri said.

Rotter called the injury “impressive.”

“We’re a trauma center, we treat trauma every day. I haven’t seen this actual trauma. But a bad wound is a bad wound,” he said.

Surprisingly, doctors said, she didn’t suffer nerve damage.

But it’s too early to tell if she’ll have full use of her right arm. After wound care and pain management, she’ll begin the rehab process.

Being in top shape because of her triathlete training is helping her heal fast. Doctors said she was “remarkably calm.“

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“She seemed like a strong lady,” Rotter said. “She was remarkably strong.“

What’s not known is species of the shark. Doctors have not consulted with a shark expert, and said photos were taken as part of her medical records but the victim has to sign a release.

Lowe, head of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, said without teeth or witness accounts, it’s hard to tell what species it was. But likely, it was an adult great white.

“It is unusual for them to be in Southern California near our beaches, we just don’t typically see them here,” Lowe said. “We most never have shark attacks along our coast.”

Lowe and his team have been studying a group of about a dozen great white sharks living off Surfside. Typically, juvenile great whites are born in the region and then leave during winter. But they’ve stuck around in the past two years because of warm El Nino waters.

And those sharks are getting bigger.

Surfside resident and surfer Jodie Nelson said there are at least two 9-foot sharks hanging out right in front of her house.

“I definitely don’t like how stressful it is for me to surf, and I don’t like how much bigger the sharks have gotten,” she said.

Lifeguard Chief Williams said that lifeguards couldn’t confirm the shark attack immediately because neither they nor the victim saw what bit her. But from the start, the guards treated the incident like one, posting signs and evacuating the waters.

Williams said lifeguards around the county have been training to respond to shark sightings and attacks in the past year, as shark sightings have increased. They’ve collaborated with agencies from San Diego to Ventura to come up with a consistent shark-response plan.

“This was the first time we’ve had to put this in place, besides sightings,” Williams said.

He said the agency will be working further with shark expert Lowe to learn more about shark behaviors.

“Hopefully, in the coming weeks we can get him on board to prepare better, if that’s possible, and understand why this may have happened here,” Williams said.

He said that the swimmer was near an area frequented by sea lions — a food source for some shark species — but wasn’t doing anything different than many other experienced swimmers.

“What she was doing was… not against any rules,“ Williams said. “We have staff that does this frequently. All day long people go out and swim the buoy lines.”

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