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German survivor of shark attack, on mend, thanks lifeguard

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of July 19, 2012)

Karin Stei gets around on crutches now after being released from a special clinic where German surgeons successfully transplanted skin from her right leg onto her left leg which was horribly damaged after a shark attacked her in early May while she swam about 30 yards in front of the Driftwood Inn.

While it remains to be seen if her left leg – mauled from just inches below her groin to just below her knee – will ever regain the strength it had before the attack, the prospects look good, Stei said in an e-mail to the Vero Beach lifeguard who pulled her from the water.

The way Stei sees it, she could easily have lost her life.

“I can only express my deepest gratitude for your bravery to rescue me and thus saving my life,” Stei wrote in an e-mail to life guard Erik Toomsoo, who reached the stricken swimmer and brought her to shore where others worked to keep her calm and stem the bleeding from the gaping wound.

The attack received international attention and will prompt a visit to Vero Beach next month by a National Geographic Channel film crew doing a three-part series on “Why Sharks Attack.”

After she was pulled from the water, Stei was taken to Lawnwood Regional Medical Center where she remained a few days before being flown back to Germany.

“Together with all those wonderful people who were there on this May 9th and did whatever they could to help me…thank you, thank you, thank you,” Stei wrote.

The 47-year-old Stei of Kontanz, Germany, was swimming just east of the of the reef line in about 10 feet of water in front of the Driftwood Inn when she was attacked.

Those familiar with sharks think the shark that bit Stei was likely a bull shark or a tiger shark.

Considering the extent of Stei’s wound, many say it’s a miracle that she is alive and that she did not lose her leg which suffered massive tissue loss.

“I’ve been on pins and needles,” Toomsoo said of waiting for the updates from the woman’s brother, Peter Stei.  He said he wrote Peter Stei to inquire about his sister after hearing from people that she had lost her leg. Just last week, he said, someone told him Stei had lost her leg.

“I’m just relived that she has both legs and that she is doing as well as can be expected,” Toomsoo said.

Karin Stei’s July 12 e-mail to Toomsoo was the first he received directly from her.

“I would say that she is making good progress,” Peter Stei wrote to Toomsoo. “I can see that on a weekly basis.”

To this day, Toomsoo, an Army veteran, said he has a hard time putting the thought of sharks out of his mind when he’s swimming.

Three times since Stei’s attack, lifeguards briefly closed city beaches because large sharks were sighted close to shore, said Toomsoo.

The July 4 sightings were noted by the pilot of a Florida Fish and Wildlife helicopter who was flying over Vero beaches and reported a pair of five-foot lemon sharks.

Toomsoo said lifeguards regularly see sharks off the beach. He said they’ll typically sound a horn, raise two reds flags when sharks are spotted close by, and keep people out of the water for about a half hour until the sharks leave the area.

A second sighting of a nine-foot shark – about the size of the one that attacked Stei – also prompted lifeguards to clear bathers from the beaches a few weeks ago.

“I think our country is obsessed with shark attacks,” said Toomsoo.

Toomsoo was about eight when the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws” was released. The movie left a mark on him and millions of others.

“’Jaws’ ruined our generation,” he said.

Toomsoo said this is also the time of year when bait fish are drawing predators closer to shore.

The notion of why sharks attack and Vero Beach will be the subject of a three-part National Geographic Channel piece scheduled to film in Vero Beach next month.

Toomsoo said a producer called him a couple of weeks ago about the cable channel’s interest in the Vero Beach attack.

Shark attacks along the Vero Beach shoreline go back more than 100 years.  The May 9 shark attack was the 18th in Indian River County since records started being kept back in the 1800s. Indian River County ranks ninth in the state for shark attacks. The last fatal attack in Indian River County occurred in 1998. The victim was a nine-year-old boy.

For now, Stei, who told Toomsoo that she is waiting for treatment to strengthen her left leg, cannot help but look to the future.

“The prospects are good,” Stei wrote. “I hope to meet you in the future in person and tell you how happy you made my family and friends. Best wishes for now, yours, Karin.”