A saltwater crocodile killed a man in Australia's Northern Territory and then "showed off" his body in its jaws before circling his two friends for 22 hours.
The survivors, Shaun Blowers and Ashley McGough, both 19, escaped a similar fate by clinging to a tree on the banks of the Finniss river, 80km (50 miles) south-west of Darwin. The 4m (13ft) crocodile, which had killed Brett Mann, 22, swam beneath them all night and for much of the next day.
Yesterday, the pair recounted the horrific sequence of events, which followed a Sunday afternoon spent racing quad bikes along a dirt trail near the Finniss.
After fooling around and spraying each other with mud, the men, from the Northern Territory, went to wash their clothes in the river, swollen by summer monsoon rains. As they stood on the sandy bank, Mr Mann lost his footing and was swept away. The other two went to rescue him, but encountered the crocodile and scrambled up a tree.
The next time they saw their friend, he was in the reptile's jaws. "The croc brought Brett to the surface and pretty much showed him off to us, and then off he swam," said Mr Blowers. He and Mr McGough stayed in the tree until they were rescued by a helicopter the next day.
The north of Australia is home to about 120,000 "salties", the world's largest and most aggressive crocodile species. Despite their name, they inhabit fresh water and are sometimes found hundreds of miles from the sea. But locals said they had never previously been seen that far down the Finniss, which cuts through tropical wetlands.
Last year a crocodile killed a German backpacker who went for a moonlight swim in a waterhole in Kakadu National Park, east of Darwin, after her tour guide told her it was safe. He has since been convicted of negligence. The woman's sister witnessed the attack. Rangers had to harpoon the crocodile to release the body from its jaws.
Looking pale and distressed at a press conference in Darwin, Mr Blowers related how Mr Mann - who had waded in slightly further than his friends - was swept away. "We both jumped in and swam after him, and we got in front of him and were leading him back to the bank," he said. "I went past the croc. I didn't see it. Ashley screamed out 'croc, croc'. We just swam to the nearest tree, and straight up we went.
"We were looking around for Brett, but didn't hear a thing, didn't hear a scream, no splashing or anything. Two minutes later, the croc brought Brett to the surface ... Five minutes later, he was back, stalking the tree. He circled and sat there watching us. He hung around us all night and pretty much all the next morning."
The men's families reported them missing on Sunday evening, and a search was launched at first light on Monday, but was hampered by heavy rains and rough, inaccessible scrub.
The pair were flown to Darwin, where they were treated for shock and exposure. Police have yet to find Mr Mann's body or the crocodile, which will be shot once it is located. They will resume their search today.
Mr Mann's family were too traumatised to speak publicly. Mr Blowers described his friend as "just a quiet sort of fella ... the best bloke I've ever really known". His father, Greg, said: "I just hope the rangers can find it [the crocodile] and get old mate Brett back, and put a bullet in its head."
Saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles, can reach 7m (23ft) in length. Hunted to near extinction, they have been protected since the 1970s and are only killed when they threaten public safety. But their numbers are back to pre-protection levels and they are increasingly found in urban areas, including the streets of Darwin.
Warning signs abound, and the Parks and Wildlife Service recently proposed the introduction of limited hunting to control the population.Reuse content