Local News

Woman Recounts Shark Attack in N.C.

Posted October 9, 2001

— Natalia Slobodskaya wasn't wearing her glasses, so she couldn't see the marauder that killed her fiance and ripped off her left foot and a chunk of flesh from her buttock.

But she felt the shark's sandpapery skin - a sensation she still relives in nightmares more than a month after the Sept. 3 attack off the coast of Avon, N.C.

"It was rough, it was disgusting, you know, the skin of a beast," Slobodskaya, 23, of Oakton in northern Virginia, told a news conference Tuesday at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Riblet, said her wounds are healing quickly and he hopes to release her this week.

Slobodskaya recalled that she and her fiance, Sergei Zaloukaev, 28, were swimming in about 6 feet of water, 30 feet offshore, when she felt something touch her from behind.

At first, the Moscow native thought one of her friends was trying to scare her. Then something grabbed her from behind two or three times, and Zaloukaev screamed, "It's a shark. Swim fast."

They struggled to swim back to shore, fighting off the shark as they went. The shark attacked from behind, then darted between Slobodskaya's legs. "It was all around us," she said.

The attack lasted about two minutes. Slobodskaya said she didn't feel much pain at the time because she was in shock.

She learned from her mother a couple days later that Zaloukaev was killed in the attack.

"One of my concerns is that he spent some of the energy he had saving me," Slobodskaya said.

"I loved him more than my life," she said tearfully. "I'm very amazed that I still keep my life and not him. He was the kindest and most beautiful person I knew. He was very smart."

The couple was on vacation when they were attacked.

Two days earlier, David Peltier, 10, of Henrico County was killed by a shark off Virginia Beach, about 130 miles up the coast. Slobodskaya said she wasn't aware of that attack when she went swimming. She said she had heard of other attacks in Florida but that she thought she had no reason to worry because they had vacationed in Avon for four years in a row, with no problems.

Shark experts have said they think both fatal attacks involved bull sharks, a species seldom seen off the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. In both cases, the victims were swimming at dusk, when sharks tend to feed.

Slobodskaya's main injury was a dished-out wound to the left buttock and hip about 12 inches in diameter and nearly to the bone. Her left foot was bitten off at the ankle, and she also lost the tip of the middle finger on her left hand.

Slobodskaya was in a wheelchair during the news conference but has been fitted with an artificial foot and demonstrated how she can walk reasonably well using crutches.

Trauma surgeon Jeffrey Riblet said that Slobodskaya, whom he initially was surprised had even survived the attack, has recovered well. Much of the buttocks wound filled in with granulation tissue, a tissue of healing that is full of blood vessels and nutrients, Riblet said. He also covered the wound with skin harvested from her right thigh.

"Youth is a wonderful thing," Riblet said. "She was clearly well-nourished, young, healthy."

Slobodskaya has had four surgeries and likely will need more plastic surgery.

Slobodskaya, who has no health insurance, estimated that her medical costs will exceed $200,000. Her friends have set up a Web site,

http://www.helpnatasha.com

, for donations to help pay the bills for the woman they affectionately call "Natasha."

Slobodskaya's hospital bill, not including separate doctors' bills, has reached more than $93,000, Sentara spokeswoman Tina Fries said.

Slobodskaya said she wants to get her life back to normal, but she knows it will take a long time. A doctoral student in human sciences at George Washington University, she is doing as much of her coursework as possible from her hospital room. She hasn't decided whether she will go back to the town house she shared with her fiance or move in with her parents, who live in Gaithersburg, Md.

She said she still feels her fiance's presence.

"I feel our unity," she said. "He's helping me to pull through this."

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