CAROLINE GRAHAM: British backpacker twins in crocodile attack tell their story
The second she locked eyes with the giant crocodile she knew that she was in desperate trouble.
Its head half-submerged in the murky Mexican lagoon, the ten-foot long beast was staring silently at British backpacker Melissa Laurie from less than 50ft away.
‘I saw the outline of its head above the water and its eyes. It was silent and perfectly still at this point,’ she says.
‘I knew in that moment we were in trouble. I screamed, ‘S***! It’s a crocodile, we need to turn back immediately!’ My heart rate shot up. I was so scared.’
It was then that the crocodile struck. Again and again the reptile attacked, dragging the 28-year-old under the water in a terrifying ‘death roll’, inflicting gaping wounds over Melissa’s body.
She was saved by her identical twin Georgia who, through a feat of almost super-human strength and courage, repeatedly punched the crocodile on the nose until it released gravely wounded Melissa from its jaws, barely clinging to life.
Melissa, pictured left, is an animal lover who worked at Longleat safari park in Wiltshire, and Georgia, right, is a dive master who teaches English as a second language. They were on ‘a trip of a lifetime’ to Mexico which began in March and was due to end in November
Last night, speaking about their ordeal for the first time in a world exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, Melissa gave a gripping account of her fight for survival and revealed how:
- She was just seconds from safety, reaching out to a friend on the river bank, when the crocodile grabbed her left arm, yanking her back into the fetid swamp and plunging her into a ‘death roll’ beneath the water: ‘I could see the light from the surface and hear muffled sounds but I couldn’t move. I thought I was dying’;
- The ‘vice-like’ grip of the crocodile’s jaw made her think her left arm had been bitten off;
- She was so convinced that she was going to die that she thought about her mother and father, Sue and Sean, back in Sandhurst, Berkshire and felt ‘guilty’ that she was leaving her twin to deal with ‘the mess’ of her death;
- Drifting in and out of consciousness, she clung to life as Georgia sang Stand By Me and Three Little Birds during an agonising 35-minute boat ride to a waiting ambulance.
I met Melissa, Georgia and their parents beneath a traditional Mexican thatched palapa, or shelter, in the garden of their rented home in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, a 35-minute drive from the picturesque Manialtepec lagoon where the attack took place.
In person, Melissa appears frail – she has lost a stone since the June 6 attack which left her in an induced coma – but has made a stunning recovery. When we met on Friday evening she had just been to the hospital to have dozens of stitches removed from wounds to her arm, legs, bottom and abdomen.
The scars from the attack are still visible, with claw marks standing out on one side of her nose. She lifts up her T-shirt to show an eight-inch vertical scar where surgeons had to cut her open to repair puncture wounds to her bowel, stomach and abdomen.
Remarkably you can clearly see an outline of the crocodile’s jaw in series of teeth marks on the back of her left leg. But while her wounds are healing it is apparent that the psychological scars are still there.
Melissa, an animal lover who worked at Longleat safari park in Wiltshire, and Georgia, a dive master who teaches English as a second language, were on ‘a trip of a lifetime’ to Mexico which began in March and was due to end in November.
They had been backpacking around the country and ended up earlier this month in the laid-back beach resort of Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific west coast.
In person, Melissa appears frail – she has lost a stone since the June 6 attack which left her in an induced coma – but has made a stunning recovery. She is pictured above in hospital
They were attracted by the wildlife and the spectacular Manialtepec lagoon, 12 miles away. The waters are famous around the world for their bioluminescence – caused by millions of tiny plankton emitting ultraviolet light which gives the lagoon an ethereal glow at night.
Melissa says: ‘On that day we were trying to decide what to do and we were offered a chance by a guy called Richie, who was staying at the same hostel, to take a boat ride to the lagoon and go birdwatching and see the bioluminescence.’
The group set off. There has been much controversy over the fact that ‘Richie’ – real name Recep Aydin, a German-Turkish immigrant who has since ‘disappeared off the face of the Earth’ – was an unauthorized guide seemingly unaware that certain parts of the lagoon are saltwater crocodile breeding areas.
Sean, Melissa’s father, reveals: ‘The lagoon is on one side and the sea on the other.
‘We were told that Richie previously took a man there who swam in the sea and broke his back because the waves were so strong.’
Melissa, Georgia and their backpacking friends, brothers Ani and Gopal, who had also travelled to the lagoon, repeatedly asked Richie if it was safe to swim in the water and were told it was.
There has been much controversy over the fact that ‘Richie’ – real name Recep Aydin, a German-Turkish immigrant who has since ‘disappeared off the face of the Earth’ – was an unauthorized guide seemingly unaware that certain parts of the lagoon are saltwater crocodile breeding areas
Melissa says: ‘Ani went for a walk along the beach and found a dead turtle and came back. I’m really interested in animals so we decided to walk along and have a look at it close up.’
The twins and the brothers walked along the beach before deciding to go for a dip in the lagoon. We didn’t see the point in coming to this stunning area and just drinking [alcohol] like the rest of the group,’ she says. ‘It was stunning, we were marvelling at nature.’
Melissa, a marathon runner and keep-fit fanatic, tells me neither twin had been drinking.
But as the group swam out of the lagoon and into the river to make their way back to their boat, Melissa noticed a ‘weird’ thing: ‘The water temperature was changing.’
She would later learn that the spot was where fresh river water meets saline sea water which, together with a thick mangrove swamp, makes it an ideal nesting ground for saltwater crocodiles, which are breeding at this time of year.
‘We had the mangroves on one side and we’re swimming up and it was Gopal who saw something in the distance and said: ‘What’s that?’ He thought it was a log.
‘I immediately saw the croc. I saw its eyes. It stared at me.
‘I went ‘s***, s***, s***! We need to get out of here now.’ I knew we were in trouble.
‘It was about 50 feet away. My heart sank. It was just ‘swim! swim!’ My heart-rate shot up. I was so scared at that point.’
Georgia turned around as they frantically tried to get to shore: ‘It was moving quickly and silently. You could see it coming closer. It was totally silent, just some small ripples.’
She continues: ‘I was so close to reaching safety. Ani had managed to climb on to the mangroves and he bent down and held his hand out to grab my right hand and, just as I reached out to grab his hand, my left hand got bitten. It was sudden. I was shocked when it took me under [the water] because I wasn’t aware that the crocodile had moved.
‘I was screaming as I got dragged under water and in that moment I thought I was about to die. I remember being shaken around a lot. I didn’t feel anything, no pain. But I thought that my arm had gone because of the massive pressure of the crocodile’s jaw.’
The animal plunged Melissa into a ‘death roll’; a violent twisting motion which the giant reptiles use to kill and drown their prey. ‘I could see light coming from the surface but it was shaking me around and I couldn’t move,’ she says.
‘I remember screaming under the water.
‘My mind was racing with all these thoughts. I thought, ‘I’m never going to see my family again, I’m never going to see my twin sister again.’ My initial thought was she’s going to have to deal with getting my body back to the UK. I thought I was about to die. Then I passed out.’
At this point in the interview Georgia – the eldest twin by ten minutes – reaches out to clasp her sister’s hand.
Georgia, a strong swimmer, saw the crocodile attack Melissa.
‘I saw it pulling her under but I kept swimming and that was hard but you think about your fight or flight instinct and my first instinct was flight. To get myself to safety,’ she says.
Melissa turns to her: ‘Did you know it was me?’
Georgia replies: ‘Yes. I heard you screaming and saw you being pulled under.’
Within seconds Georgia reached the relative safety of the bank and hauled herself out of the water: ‘I was hysterical, screaming ‘Where’s Mel? Where’s my sister?’
‘It felt delusional, like this is not happening, you can’t believe what’s happening.’
Then she heard one of the boys say: ‘Oh my God, that’s a body.’
‘Melissa’s body was floating face down in the water,’ Georgia says. ‘I went back in and went towards her to grab her body, pulled her towards me, lift her up.’
Georgia turns to her sister again: ‘You were blue. Your eyes were gray. I was trying to wake you up, slapping you, screaming, ‘Mel, stay with me!’ ‘
By this point, Melissa was lapsing in and out of consciousness. She recalls: ‘I remember waking up and flailing my arms around. I didn’t know if I was still being attacked by the crocodile.’
Her twin desperately tried to calm her, terrified the creature would return. And the crocodile did come back – to launch two more terrifying attacks.
As it grabbed Melissa’s left foot in a renewed assault, Georgia began beating it on the nose with her fists: ‘I had to fight it off, I started bashing it and bashing it with both fists; just thumping it. It felt rock hard, like punching a wall.’
Melissa was hauled into the boat, with Georgia clambering in and cradling her in her arms. Blood was everywhere, with Melissa vomiting up a mixture of blood and filthy water. Georgia is pictured above showing her injuries
She looks at her sister again: ‘It grabbed you and tried to death roll you, that’s when it bit me. It was really going for it – it would grab you and then bite you again.’
The animal swam away but came back seconds later for a third time, biting Melissa’s upper thigh and bottom. Again, Georgia flailed and punched it hard: ‘I was exhausted from the fight. But I just kept punching it.’
The crocodile swam away for the final time after being pummelled by Georgia for a ‘substantial’ length of time: ‘It felt like the attack went on for ever. I don’t know how long it went on. I was scared that it would come back and then we would both be dead.’
Despite her heroics, Georgia plunged into despair: ‘When I realised that Melissa wasn’t responding, I was actually thinking: ‘I want to die. I don’t want to live any more’.’
At this point a gentle sobbing breaks the muggy night air as their mother Sue breaks down in tears. Georgia stands up to hug her, while Melissa holds her father Sean’s hand tightly.
Sue says: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve just never heard this before. I could have lost them both. I don’t know how we would have carried on.’
By this time in the story, friend Ani had raced to get help and a rescue boat had arrived on the scene.
Melissa was hauled into the boat, with Georgia clambering in and cradling her in her arms.
Blood was everywhere, with Melissa vomiting up a mixture of blood and filthy water.
She says: ‘I remember screaming ‘Hug me, hug me’ because I knew I was dying at that point and I just wanted to be in [Georgia’s] arms.
‘I remember telling Georgia: ‘I’m dying, I’m dying.’
‘I was really scared. It felt so surreal. A nightmare.’
Deep bite marks and surgery scars can still be seen on Georgia’s legs
During the 35-minute boat ride back to shore, Melissa fought to survive. ‘I couldn’t breathe and when I did my chest was rattling. It was the longest ride imaginable, just fighting for my life,’ she says.
‘I was biting as hard as I could on to Georgia’s shoulder because I wanted to feel physically close to her but it’s like when you pinch yourself to know something’s real.
‘I was biting on to her shoulder because then I knew what was happening was real.’
Georgia tried to comfort her twin by singing: ‘I kept repeating the same verses over and over again.’
Melissa says: ‘I could hear her singing and hear people talking but I was trying to focus on staying alive. I couldn’t breath and every time that I tried my chest rattled and I would cough up blood on to Georgia’s body.’
While her left wrist was cut to the bone (doctors would later have to insert a steel plate) the worst pain came from her abdominal wounds: ‘My stomach was excruciating.’
Finally, they reached shore, where the girls were bundled into a waiting ambulance and rushed to a hospital another 30 minutes away. Melissa said: ‘I remember the feeling of relief when the ambulance doors opened and I saw a team of medical staff waiting.
‘I remember them cutting my bikini off me and cutting my rings off. I’d fought hard to survive and hang on. I knew in that moment that I didn’t want to die. I hadn’t finished living.’ While Melissa was taken off for hours of life-saving surgery, Georgia was left to fill in the paperwork giving doctors permission to place her twin in a medically induced coma.
There was so much dirt inside Melissa’s body that she developed sepsis, life-threatening blood poisoning, and was put in a coma for four days while being pumped full of antibiotics. Georgia remembers smearing the hospital paperwork with blood from her mauled right hand, then calling her parents back home in Berkshire.
It was 4am UK time. Sue says of that morning: ‘I knew it was the twins. Every mum knows that feeling when the phone goes at 4am. I just knew.’
Georgia, in deep shock, was ‘almost robotic’ as she told her parents: ‘The doctor says Melissa’s condition has deteriorated, her breathing has deteriorated.’
For 24 hours it was touch and go. Yet remarkably Melissa defied the odds and continued to recover.
Within three days she was breathing unaided and on the fourth day, when doctors cut back her medication, she finally woke up.
She says: ‘The last memory I have is being wheeled upstairs [for surgery] and the nurse putting a mask over my face. That was Sunday night. I woke up on the Thursday.’
Melissa spent 12 nights in hospital while Georgia was released after two. Their parents arrived in Mexico a few days later.
Sitting with the family it is clear that, while they realise how very lucky they have been, all are suffering from some form of post-traumatic shock.
Sue breaks down crying. Her husband of 40 years admits that he found the feeling of helplessness, not being able to protect his girls, ‘very difficult’.
Georgia is finding it hard to sleep and has nightly flashbacks of the ordeal.
‘In that moment of the attack I felt like a bond was being severed [with my twin] and it has taken a while to get that back,’ she says.
‘I haven’t had time to process it properly. It will take a while.’
For her part, Melissa says she feels nothing but gratitude for her second chance at life.
She now plans to celebrate June 6 each year as her ‘re-birthday’.
‘I’m so grateful to be alive and feel like every insignificant problem is just that,’ she says.
‘I’m happier than I have ever been. I feel calm.
‘I wouldn’t change a thing about the attack because it has changed my whole outlook on life. I fought so hard to live. I’m proud of my scars. I know I am the luckiest girl in the world. I’m grateful to be alive.’
- Additional reporting by Andrea Noel
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