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Saturday, April 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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She Felt Pop - Leg Was Gone -- Ingraham Grad Survives South Pacific Shark Attack

Heather Boswell's first warning was when somebody yelled, "Shark!"

Until that moment, she had been swimming in the South Pacific Ocean, waves as warm as bath water, taking a break with about eight other shipmates from the Seattle-based research vessel Discoverer.

"I started swimming (for the ship) as fast as I could. Then I felt something grab my leg and jerk me. I turned and saw his fin," recalled Boswell, 19, from her bed at Harborview Medical Center yesterday.

Boswell, a 1992 Ingraham High School graduate, lost most of her left leg March 23 in a rare shark attack about 300 miles east of Easter Island off the Chilean coast.

She thinks the shark was a great white, about 14 feet long, although the species was not confirmed. The shark appeared out of nowhere and attacked Phil Buffington, a seaman swimming nearby. He suffered cuts to his legs that required more than 50 stitches.

Next the shark turned its attention to Boswell.

When the shark grabbed her right leg, Boswell stopped moving for a moment, afraid of kicking it. "I think he was confused with so many people in the water," she said.

Boswell tried to grab a stick offered by a crew member in a skiff that was with the swimmers, but the shark then grabbed her left leg and pulled her underwater.

"He was moving his head back and forth, shaking me really hard," Boswell recalled. "I thought I was going to die."

The shark brought her back to the surface near the skiff. Two crew members grabbed her arms and held on while a third one hit the shark with the stick.

Then Boswell felt a popping sensation in her left leg. "I thought it was my hip dislocating, but that's when I lost my leg," she said. She didn't realize it until the crewmen pulled her into the skiff and she looked down to see the damage. She lost her leg from about midthigh down.

Boswell recalled hearing shots fired by crew members in a lookout tower on the ship after she was in the skiff and the shark was headed toward a third person clinging to a rope ladder, still half in the water.

Boswell wasn't sure what happened to the shark, but no other crew members were hurt.

She signed on with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this year for a six-month stint in the galley, serving food to the 303-foot vessel's 85 crew members and scientists. She said she was looking forward to the adventure and the chance to travel.

The ship had been conducting research for about 2 1/2 months, with stops in Chile and around Antarctica, before heading toward Easter Island.

Boswell was airlifted from Easter Island to a military hospital in Panama City, where her parents, George and Suzie Boswell, and other family members met her. She was flown to Seattle a week ago.

She expects to be out of the hospital in two weeks and fitted with a temporary prosthesis in six weeks.

Doctors have told her once she is fitted with a permanent prosthesis she'll be able to do virtually anything, including serving on a ship again. Boswell's not so sure. "They haven't been out there when there are 30-foot swells," she said.

Her family thinks her sense of humor will help her heal psychologically from the attack, which so devastated fellow shipmates that counselors were brought aboard to help them in the days after Boswell's evacuation, said NOAA spokesman Hal Alabaster.

Near her hospital bed, Boswell keeps a stuffed purple shark, a present from her older sister.

"Kind of morbid," she said, laughing, but it's a way of coping with what happened to her.

"I'm dealing with it the best I can. I still have moments when I break down and cry," she said.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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