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Jun 16, 2016 10:31 AM

Alexandria man recalls own childhood gator attack while visiting Disney 30 years ago

ALEXANDRIA — An Alexandria man said an alligator's attack on a toddler in Florida led him to relive his own fight against an alligator at Walt Disney World 30 years before.

READ: Body of toddler snatched by alligator at Disney resort has been found

Paul Santamaria was just eight years old when he and his family traveled to the Fort Wilderness Campground in 1986 for a Disney vacation.

"We were just excited to be going to Disney World," Santamaria told FOX25.

Santamaria said he and his siblings were playing at the lake's edge in the campground, feeding the ducks, when a seven-foot female alligator suddenly launched out of the water.

"It happened in slow motion. The alligator came out of the water kind of sideways, swinging its head, and it hit me and knocked me down," Santamaria said. "Once I hit the ground, it turned its head sideways and grabbed my leg. From there it started to thrash me around, pull on me and try to get me into the water."

READ: Authorities search for boy dragged into water by gator

Santamaria said his sister grabbed his arms and his brother began hitting the gator while he kicked with his free leg.

The intense, violent tug-of-war ended when the alligator suddenly let go and disappeared back into the water.

"I just remember how slow it seemed to be happening, I didn't feel any pain from it," Santamaria said.

Yet the attack had done major damage. Santamaria was hospitalized for a week after doctors pulled an alligator tooth from inside his thigh that was pressing against his femoral artery.

His mental recovery was slower, however, as Santamaria said he was haunted for years by memories of the attack.

"For a long time as a little kid, I didn't sleep in my own room, I didn't like water," he told FOX25.

READ: Amid Disney attack, 7 things to know about alligators in Florida

Santamaria said those painful memories were brought back by news Wednesday morning that a toddler had been pulled into the water by an alligator in the Seven Seas Lagoon, at the Grand Floridian Resort, which shares a body of water with Fort Wilderness Campground.

"I have two little girls the age of the boy that was taken, and it was just something that kind of hit home," Santamaria said.

But Santamaria said that sadness turned to anger when he heard authorities state during a news conference on Wednesday that such a tragedy had never happened before at Disney.

"This is not something that was the first time it happened," Santamaria said. "It happened to me, 30 years ago, and it was disheartening to hear that."

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