TOP SECRET ANIMAL ATTACK FILES
Special Report filed by AAF Correspondent: Anonymous
from Herald-Tribune Newscoast
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By Courtney Cairns Pastor STAFF WRITER
Wednesday, September 20, 2000
LAKEWOOD, FL - They worried about the alligator lurking in the lake behind their house. They worried about a stranger kidnapping one of their three children. They worried about finding jobs, getting unpacked, making friends.
Thoughts of deadly snakes never occurred to them.
Victor and Maria Lema moved to Lakewood Ranch in eastern Manatee County in early September. On Sept. 6, they celebrated their youngest son's second birthday. Derrick had a Thomas the Tank Engine cake and loved the "Happy Birthday" song so much that he made his parents sing it to him four or five times.
Friday afternoon, Derrick followed his father outside into their back yard. As Victor watered three scrawny palms near the lanai, Derrick poked at lovebugs on the screen.
Victor turned around and saw his son crying and pointing at the ground. Victor saw a 4-foot diamondback rattlesnake coiled and thick as a baseball bat. He saw a bite mark on his son's thigh.
He didn't pause to think. He grabbed Derrick, leapt over the rattler and ran into the house to call 911 and to call friends to watch his other two children, 5-year-old Victor Jr. and 3-year-old Ashley.
Derrick died about 24 hours later at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
It took 30 minutes for a helicopter to arrive to take him to the pediatric hospital. The family wonders why he was flown to St. Petersburg rather than closer to home for treatment.
Victor also second-guesses himself for being outside with Derrick. Derrick loved to help his father and would follow him saying, "I help, I help, I come."
Maria tears up, remembering that she was in New Jersey when the fatal accident happened. She was recovering at her parents' house after having two tumors removed from a breast.
Victor waited to call her until Friday evening. He thought that by waiting he would be able to tell his wife that Derrick had a scare but received antivenin and everything was fine. He called her after a doctor told him the toddler's chances of recovery were slim.
Maria rushed home on the first flight, a 5:15 a.m. flight to Tampa. She would kiss Derrick, hold him, talk to him. Mommy would make it better.
"I just thought, 'A mother's magic potion,'" she said.
He was already brain dead, doctors told her, though his heart continued to pound furiously.
Derrick was so small -- just 22 pounds. Had he been bigger, Maria said, maybe he would have made it. Only one of the snake's fangs broke the skin.
"It was too much for his little heart and his little body to handle," his mother said.
On Tuesday, Victor and Maria flipped through piles of photos documenting Derrick's two years. The family had barely gotten to know the area. Cardboard boxes from the move still lined the walls.
But plants, flowers and food from new friends were stacked in the kitchen. The Lakewood Ranch Mom's Group started a collection for the family.
Friends and relatives thought the Lemas were crazy when they decided to move to Florida. They had lived in New Jersey all their lives. But they wanted a change and remembered liking Florida when they vacationed in Sarasota last year. The children loved the beach.
They sold their house in February and moved in with Maria's parents until they were able to close on their new place on Water Lily Way in Lakewood Ranch. Victor quit his job driving a truck, figuring he could find a new job soon.
The bizarre outcome of the move has left Maria wondering if fate played a role. Maybe, she said, her son was destined to leave them early.
She could have lost him twice before. She carried his twin for three months before losing the baby. At six months, she started having contractions and her doctor put her on bed rest for the last trimester.
Her reward was an 8-pound, 4-ounce boy with silky black hair and wide almond eyes that dominated his face. A toddler who loved "Melmo" -- his name for the Sesame Street character Elmo. A happy kid.
Ashley, not quite two years older than her brother, had acted as a little mother to Derrick, dressing him and singing "A baby is a gift from above" to him.
Now she says matter-of-factly that Derrick died and is in the sky, heaven's brightest star. But she complains to her mother that she doesn't want her baby brother to be an angel anymore.
Victor Jr., a kindergartner at Braden River Elementary, told Maria, "Mommy, just give me one more brother, please? I promise this will be the last one."
Maria has nightmares that the snake was female and had babies that will sneak into the house.
The Lemas will return to Hackensack, N.J., this week to memorialize and bury Derrick. The service is on Thursday -- the nine-year anniversary of Victor and Maria's wedding day in that same church.
They plan to stay in New Jersey for two weeks. They're not sure if they can handle making Florida a permanent home.
"I look outside and I see such a serene setting," Maria said, gazing out her living room window, past the enclosed crescent pool to the lake. An egret searched for food on the bank. The resident alligator had vanished.
"This is paradise. It wasn't supposed to be what it turned out to be."