Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008
By Andrew Drummond

For full story and pictures click here

Three British divers swept away by powerful currents in the
shark-infested Indian Ocean told last night how they fought off an
attack by a man-eating Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard.

The group were threatened by the 10ft beast as they awaited rescue on a remote Indonesian island.

They escaped its razor-sharp teeth and poisonous saliva, which it
spits at victims, by throwing stones until the predatory animal slunk

In a graphic account of their 45-hour ordeal, dive instructor
Kathleen Mitchinson described how they survived on nothing more than raw

She said the scraps of food - and the knowledge that her partner of
20 years was searching for her - were the only things that kept her

Sitting up in her hospital bed, Ms Mitchinson hugged Ernest
Lewandowski and told him tearfully: 'I didn't give up hope. I'm so happy
to be home and that we are all safe and sound.'

Ms Mitchinson had been in charge of a group of tourists who had gone
to Komodo Island, the giant lizards' natural habitat, last Thursday
before setting out in a small wooden boat for what was supposed to be an
hour-long dive.

With her were a British couple, former Royal Marine James Manning,
30, and his girlfriend Charlotte Allin, 24, and a Frenchman and a Swede.

Meanwhile Mr Lewandowski was diving with another group of visitors at
the same spot. When his party surfaced, they were picked up first by
the dive boat team.

But by the time the boat returned for Ms Mitchinson's group they had been carried away by a strong current.

After a huge search involving the Indonesian navy and dozens of local
fishermen, a rescue boat spotted the missing divers' inflated orange
and red 'safety sausages' - brightly coloured flotation devices designed
to attract the attention of rescuers.

They were laid out in the shape of a cross on the rocks of Rinca Island, about 20 miles from where they had gone missing.

The divers are believed to have been in the water for around ten hours before being
washed on to the rocks.

They were taken to hospital - dehydrated, exhausted and sunburnt, but with no serious injuries.

One Indonesian rescuer said: 'We saw them at the beach. They said
they had found a Komodo dragon on the island which was ready to eat
them. They had to throw stones to keep it away.'

Mr Lewandowski, 53, who runs a diving school with Ms Mitchinson on
the nearby island of Flores, said the stranded divers had spent a
terrifying night being buffeted by huge waves.He added: 'They are very
tired and hungry. The hospital has done a great job. Kath's just really
glad to be home - and grateful to be alive with the whole team.'

Asked about the terror of shark attacks, he replied: 'They talked about what happened above them, not the creatures below.

'It has been quite an ordeal, but they are all safe. That's the most important thing.

'They had a miraculous escape, but the fact is, they are all
experienced divers. This was an absolute freak accident. There was
nobody at fault.

'They did all the right things: They stayed afloat in the surf and kept together as a group.

'They grabbed hold of flotsam and jetsam and kept hold of that in
huge waves out in the Indian Ocean, which were crashing over their

'They were in dangerous open ocean, the next stop to Antarctica. Most of the time they were totally covered in water.

'Kath was the team leader and coordinated things, but they all took
turns in keeping each other going. They worked as a team, which is one
of the things that is vitally important.

'Eventually, when shallow water was available, they swam towards the
shore. They were all supporting each other. Anybody who became a weak
link was made to have strength. That's how they survived.

'They went with the current, which was the only thing they could do.
They kept as close to land as possible and when they could make it to
land, they did.'

Ms Mitchinson and Mr Lewandowski, who met while diving in the north
of England, have lived in Indonesia for 15 years, the past seven on the
island of Flores, where they run a dive centre and turtle nursery.

Both are originally from Carlisle. Mr Lewandowski, 53, spent most of his life in Scotland before moving to the Far East.

He said: 'Kath knows the area very well and they managed to survive
by eating shellfish off the rocks, like little abalone, and utilising
what they had around them - the sort of food you eat in posh

'They were eating them raw, which gave them energy and moisture.'

When rescue came, the large dive boat which spotted the castaways was
unable to enter the inlet and a smaller craft was dispatched to pick up
them up.

Mr Lewandowski said: 'When I received news over the radio, I was ecstatic. I just wanted to hear Kath's voice again.'

When they did get their tearful reunion later yesterday back on dry
land at Labuan Bajo, Miss Mitchinson's throat was so dry from swallowing
salt water that she could hardly speak.

Mr Lewandowski said: 'She just said, 'I'm home safe and sound. I knew you wouldn't give up on me...'

'She had no doubt I would be doing everything in my power to find her. And she knew, no matter what, I wouldn't stop.'

Mr Manning, from Devon, trained as a Royal Marine engineer and has his paratrooper's wings.

Speaking at the family home near Cullompton, his brother Ollie said:
'It's been an anxious wait and we feared the worst when we were
initially contacted and told he was missing.

'James is a tough lad. He can look after himself. He was in the Army
for ten years and I knew that if he could get everybody out of the water
and on to a reef or beach then he'd be able to use the survival
techniques he'd been taught.'

His mother Sally-Ann said: 'He is physically shattered but otherwise OK.'

Ms Allin's sister Sarah-Jane, 26, said at her home in Bideford,
Devon: 'We had a call from the Foreign Office at 5am and then Charlotte
herself got through at 7am. She sounded tired and shocked but said she
was all right.'

In Komodo National Park, where the three Britons were diving and
where most of the creatures live, there have been eight serious
incidents since 1980.

In the most recent - the first fatal attack on a human in 33 years -
an eight-year-old boy died after he was mauled by a 10ft long, 15st
dragon in 2007.

He was tossed around like a rag doll and savaged by the lizard's
razor-sharp teeth as it tried to snap his neck just as it would other

Even if the boy had survived the attack, he would have died of blood
poisoning from the 50 virulently toxic species of bacteria contained in
the dragon's saliva.

Probably the best-known victim of the dragons' dangerous
unpredictability is Basic Instinct actress Sharon Stone's ex-husband
Phil Bronstein.

He was on a tour of Los Angeles Zoo in 2001 and was in the dragon's
cage when the creature clamped its serrated teeth down on his foot.

After prising its jaw open and escaping, he had to have surgery to
reattach severed tendons and rebuild a crushed big toe and was given
massive doses of antibiotics to combat the poisonous saliva.

Attacks on humans are rare and the creatures, which are notoriously
bad-tempered, mainly feed on monkeys, pigs, wild deer and even water

A skilled and savage hunter, it is the only lizard species that hunts
and kills prey larger than itself, and larger than it can swallow

It can sprint at 15mph and has a keen sense of smell. But instead of
chasing its prey, it prefers to lie still and camouflaged before lunging
and sinking its teeth into its victim.

Experts say that even if its prey escapes, it will die within hours from septicaemia.

But despite its awesome strength, the komodo dragon is on endangered
species lists and is under threat from tourism, poaching and volcanic

About 3,000 live on Komodo Island and other islands 300 miles east of
Bali, and there are some in captivity - a clutch of four was born at
London Zoo in 2006.


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