Australian wrestles 8-foot saltwater crocodile to save wife from its jaws

A woman grabbed by a crocodile as she stood on a riverbank in Australia's Northern Territory was rescued by her husband, who wrestled with the reptile and poked its eyes, forcing it to release her from its jaws.

The attack by the 8ft saltwater crocodile was the first ever in Litchfield National Park, south-west of Darwin, where the man-eating "salties" rarely venture. Wendy Petherick, 36, escaped with puncture wounds to both thighs and a severe cut to one finger, thanks to the prompt action of her husband, Norm Moreen.

Ms Petherick, who lives in Woolaning, a nearby Aboriginal community, was washing her face in shallow water on Wednesday when the crocodile lunged, seizing her by both legs and pulling her into the river. She tried to prise open its jaws as she shouted for her husband to help her.

"Next thing Norm is in the water, jumped in and jumped on the croc's head and was feeling for his eyes," she said yesterday, as she recovered in Royal Darwin Hospital. "He poked his eyes and the croc freed me, and Norm just pushed me towards the side of the bank and both of us just got out of the water."

In a reference to crocodiles' method of twisting and rolling underwater to kill their prey, Ms Petherick added: "If Norm wasn't there, I think he would have death-rolled me."

Saltwater crocodiles are abundant in Australia's "Top End", and most locals take care in the coastal areas and waterways. But until now, Litchfield – a popular tourist destination – was regarded as a safe place to swim. Rangers said they would try to trap the crocodile.

Mr Moreen, 39, who suffered only minor scratches, was called a hero by police and doctors, but shrugged off the praise. "I just jumped on top of it," he said. "When you need to save someone that you love, you just do it. It's pretty scary, but you have no time for thinking." The couple have three children.

Luke Playford, a park ranger, said designated swimming areas in Litchfield would be surveyed for crocodiles and traps set. "These crocs are vicious machines," said one local man, Steve Landreth, who described Ms Petherick as "one of the bravest women I've ever met". He said: "Even after being grabbed by a crocodile and injured, she was talking very calmly about what happened."

Len Notaras, the general manager of Royal Darwin Hospital, praised Mr Moreen's "swift and diligent actions". He said: "This could have been a fatal and tragic situation. The sheer force of a crocodile biting down is quite incredible." Bob Harrison, a police officer, said: "Through the actions of her husband, [Ms Petherick] has now lived to tell the tale".

nBob Irwin, father of the late Steve Irwin, who was known as the Crocodile Hunter, revealed yesterday that he had left the Queensland zoo that he established in the 1970s because he had become a "disrupting influence".

Mr Irwin told ABC television in his first interview since quitting Australia Zoo: "It's a strange feeling to spend half your lifetime building something up and walking away from it."

Terri Irwin, Steve's widow, who runs the wildlife park, has denied reports of a rift with her father-in-law. She is also facing legal problems. She and the zoo are being sued by a debt recovery agency for more than $2.5m (£1.1m) allegedly owed to creditors. And the zoo said yesterday that the Australian Tax Office was examining deals involving a Singapore-based investment bank, which the zoo had tried to cancel, realising they were not legitimate.

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