Nov. 21, 2005 — -- Long and lean, a blond streak across the waves, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton has always been something special in her Hawaiian surfing community. Since losing an arm in a harrowing shark attack in October, she's shown just how special she is.
Bethany and her teammates on the the Hanalei Bay girls' surf team are the embodiment of the feisty, spirited surfer girls of the movie Blue Crush, taking on a once male-dominated sport with their own gusto.
Born into a family of surfers, Bethany has been catching waves and trophies since the age of 8. And those who have seen her surf say she has an extraordinary gift.
Suzanne "Bobo" Bollins, who calls herself the "Grandma of the Surf," says she knew Bethany had what it takes to be a champion.
"I consider her a little ocean person. I'd say she has salt in her blood," Bollins said. "She lives and breathes the ocean. She gets the big waves. She doesn't mess around. … I have said to myself, 'There's the next World Champion.' "
But on Oct. 31, when the water was glassy and calm, Bethany's life was changed forever.
"I was laying on my board sideways. And then … the shark came up and grabbed a hold of my arm," she told ABCNEWS' Chris Cuomo.
"And then, I was holding onto my board, with my thumb, because I probably didn't want to get pulled under. It was like pulling me back and forth, not like pulling me underwater. Just like, you know how you eat a piece of steak? … It was kind of like that. And then it let go. And then went under. Then I looked down at the water, and it was like really red, from all the blood in the water."
The attack severed her left arm, just below the shoulder.
Bethany has drawn as much admiration from her community after the attack as she had before. "I guess since I handled the situation so well, that people have taken me as a role model, but I don't like feel like one," she said.
‘I Saw Blood in the Water’
Bethany was at a favorite surf spot known as "The Tunnels" with family friend Holt Blanchard; his daughter, Alana, who is Bethany's best friend; and Blanchard's son, Byron. The attack happened so quickly that none of the surfers around her ever saw the shark — believed to be a 14-foot-long tiger shark — or her struggle with it.
"We're just sitting there and all of a sudden Bethany goes, 'I got attacked by a shark,' " Blanchard recalled. At first, he said, he thought she was kidding because he never saw any splashing or struggle or heard her scream.
"All of a sudden she was paddling in toward Byron and Alana and myself," he said. "And I saw blood in the water and I realized she did get attacked. … I paddled up to her and at that point I noticed her arm was gone."
Blanchard said he knew he had to act quickly. Still 200 yards from shore, Blanchard said he thought to himself, "How am I going to get her in before she bleeds to death?"
Using his surfboard leash, Blanchard fashioned a makeshift tourniquet for Bethany and led her to shore.
Throughout the terrifying ordeal, Bethany remained calm. "I think I figured out that, like if I panicked, then things wouldn't go as good as if I was calm," she said.
"I was praying to God to rescue me and help me," Bethany said. "And then, I had this one pretty funny thought, I think. I was thinking, 'I wonder if I'm going to lose my sponsor.' "
Dad Bumped From Operating Table
Bethany has shown extraordinary grace in her recovery, telling family and friends that she plans to keep a positive attitude and, remarkably, that she plans to get back on her board and surf as soon as her arm heals.
The combination of her uncommon grace under pressure and Holt Blanchard's quick actions probably saved Bethany's life.
In an extraordinary coincidence, Bethany was rushed to Wilcox Memorial Hospital, where her father, Tom Hamilton, was about to have routine knee surgery. When doctors told him his surgery would have to be delayed because there was a badly injured surfer en route, Hamilton feared the worst, knowing his daughter was out surfing.
Dr. David Rovinsky recalls telling Tom Hamilton the news. "I was crying, because I knew it was Bethany. I knew how it would affect Tom, and it's the hardest news you can share with another parent."
"I just prayed to God that she'd survive," Hamilton said. "They had to roll me out of the upcoming surgery room and she replaced me in the same operating room."
Holt Blanchard told Bethany's mom of her daughter's injury. When she learned Bethany had lost her arm, Cheri Hamilton said, "I just lost it. I fell apart. I had to pull off the road."
Bethany, it seems, is the one who's buoying her family's spirits. Within days, she started taking the first steps toward her recovery. She's already begun learning to do things with one hand, and adjusting to the physical and emotional effects of the attack.
"Well, I think that I should just have a positive attitude toward things and the challenges coming up and if I have a bad attitude, then it's not really gonna make it anything better," she said.
Hundreds of well-wishers are sending her cards and logging on to her Web site, www.bethanyhamilton.com, to offer their support.
Bethany told Cuomo she doesn't feel compelled to show people she can bounce back from the attack and get back in the water. She said she plans to do it for herself. "If I don't get back on my board, I'll be in a bad mood forever," she said.
For the moment, Bethany is grateful. "I think we're all very thankful that I'm still here and that Holt was there and I think that this will definitely bring our two families closer together and it already has," she said. "But I think that we'll definitely have a thankful Thanksgiving."