Teenage girl speaks out after surviving shark attack at Florida beach

The teen spoke from her hospital bed in Tallahassee a day after the attack.

ByMorgan Winsor and Meredith Deliso via ABC logo
Saturday, July 2, 2022
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A teenage girl who survived a shark attack at a Florida beach recounted that her first instinct was to punch the fish in the nose.

A teenage girl who survived a shark attack at a Florida beach recounted that her first instinct was to punch the fish in the nose.

The attack happened at Keaton Beach in northwestern Florida's Taylor County on Thursday. The teen was scalloping in water approximately 5 feet deep near Grassy Island, just of Keaton Beach, when she was bitten by the shark, according to the Taylor County Sheriff's Office.

"And the next thing I know something latches onto my leg and I was like that's not right. And then I look and it's a big old shark," the victim, 17-year-old Addison Bethea, told "Good Morning America" from her hospital bed in an exclusive interview airing Saturday morning. "Then I remember from watching the Animal Planet to like...punch [it] in the nose or something like that. And I couldn't get around to his nose the way he bit me."

Addison's brother, Rhett Willingham, a firefighter and emergency medical technician, raced to help her.

"She came back up and I saw, like, the blood and everything, and I saw the shark," Willingham told "Good Morning America." "So then I swam over there, grabbed her, and then pushed them all, kind of trying to separate them. And he just kept coming. So I grabbed her, swam backwards and kicked him and then yelled for help."

Willingham put a tourniquet on her leg to control the bleeding while they were brought back to the beach on a boat by a good Samaritan, her family said in a statement.

The teen suffered "serious injuries" and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Tallahassee, about 80 miles northwest of Keaton Beach, according to the sheriff's office.

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital initially listed her in critical condition. Doctors performed emergency surgery and were able to stabilize the teen, who suffered extensive damage to her right leg, according to the hospital.

Addison, of Perry, Florida, is scheduled to have a second surgery on Saturday "to further investigate the extent of the damage to her leg and determine what treatment options are available with the goal of saving her leg," the hospital said in a statement.

"Addison has a long journey to recovery, but she was in good spirits today, surrounded by her family in Tallahassee Memorial's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit," the hospital said.

The sheriff's office said the type of shark that attacked was unclear but it was described as approximately 9 feet long.

"Swimmers and scallopers are cautioned to be alert, vigilant, and practice shark safety," the sheriff's office added. "Some rules to follow are: never swim alone, do not enter the water near fishermen, avoid areas such as sandbars (where sharks like to congregate), do not swim near large schools of fish, and avoid erratic movements while in the water."

Shark attacks increased worldwide in 2021 after three consecutive years of decline, though the previous year's significantly low numbers were attributed to lockdowns and restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to yearly research conducted by the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File.

Florida has topped the global charts in the number of shark bites for decades, and the trend continued in 2021, researchers said. Out of 73 unprovoked incidents recorded around the world last year, 28 were in Florida, representing 60% of the total cases in the United States and 38% of cases worldwide. That number was consistent with Florida's most recent five-year annual average of 25 shark attacks, according to researchers.

ABC News' Alondra Valle contributed to this report.