Tuesday, August 14, 2001

E-mail victimizes shark rescuer

        Maybe you've wondered if there's anything you can do for Jessie Arbogast, the 8-year-old boy attacked by a shark in July. Possibly you'd like to help his family.

        Some people have sent money, and donors lined up to give more than 650 pints of blood. “This is the most response I've seen in 20 years,” said Dorothy Dodd of Northwest Florida Blood Center. “Everybody seemed to want to help this boy.”

        Well, not everybody.

        Somebody started a hurtful rumor. A lie. And when you want to lie these days, you don't have to limit yourself to the folks around the coffee pot at the office. You can post it on the Internet.

The true story

        You've probably read the true account of the July 6 shark attack in Pensacola, Fla. A bull shark grabbed the child, who was splashing in shallow surf. His uncle, Vance Flosenzier, wrestled the beast onto the sand. A park ranger pried open the shark's mouth. Then a volunteer firefighter retrieved Jessie's arm from the shark's mouth.

        The details have been verified by Park Service officials with more than a dozen eyewitnesses. This is a tragedy. Not a mystery. But unsigned e-mails appeared about three weeks ago, claiming the uncle had been fishing and pulled the shark to shore on the end of a hook. This is simply not true.

        “No man is going to wrestle a shark that large to shore,” sneers the writer. Maybe not your average couch potato. But Vance Flosenzier is a 39-year-old triathlete.

        “He's a solid hunk of muscle,” a friend told the Miami Herald. And even an average person might perform astonishing physical feats if he saw, as Mr. Flosenzier told officials, “a large red area, about the size of a car, near Jessie.”

Different kind of virus

        Gulf Island National Seashore Chief Ranger J.R. Tomasovic said if the person who sent the e-mail is found, he'll consider legal action. The final accident report was filed Aug. 3, and the e-mail investigation was suspended a week ago.

        But the lie — just another kind of computer virus — is still out there. About a half-dozen people sent it to me in various forms. “This copy is clean. I cut and pasted the text so you wouldn't catch any viruses,” one added helpfully. “I thought it might be something The Cincinnati Enquirer could explain,” another said.

        Malice would be one explanation. Another would be a society that is lined up outside the Green Room awaiting the allotted 15 minutes of fame. Why wasn't this shark wrestler sitting across from Katie Couric the next day to accept congratulations? Must be something weird going on.

        Who was that masked man? And I wanted to thank him. Hey, Lone Ranger. You are so over. And Tonto has sold your story to the tabloids.

        And why wasn't the family weeping into the camera? Is it really so preposterous that they'd rather be at their son's bedside?

        Then there's the suggestion by the anonymous slimeball that the media are cooperating to hide the story. Cooperating? Us? Gee, let me call the weather bureau to see if hell has frozen over.

        Jessie Arbogast is in a “light coma” in his bedroom in Ocean Springs, Miss. He's a miracle. Saved from a sea monster by an authentic hero. Brought back to life by doctors. Cherished by his family. There might still be something the rest of us can do.

        Believe it.
        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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