Without any warning, swimmer Maria Korcsmaros suddenly felt the painful sensation of "piercing teeth" as a shark clamped down on the right side of her body, she recalled as she spoke to reporters in her hospital room, her husband standing close by.
The 52-year-old fitness trainer and triathlete on Tuesday described the frightful ordeal nine days ago when she was swim training several hundred feet off Corona del Mar State Beach.
"I pretty much knew it was a shark, 'cause there's nothing else that could have bit me that big," she said. "It just felt like piercing teeth. And I was like, 'Oh, my God. I think that was a shark.'"
Based on the bite marks and the spacing of the teeth, it was a white shark 9-10 feet long, said a shark authority who also met with Korcsmaros Tuesday.
Shark Bite Victim Recalls Pain of Sinking Teeth
Korcsmaros remembered that when she started swimming her laps along the buoy line, she had noticed a lifeguard boat.
"I didn't really think about anything other than getting out of there. And so my first instinct was to tread water and to get attention. And because I knew the boat was there, I figured that was my best bet," she said.
Korcsmaros was scooped onto the deck and one of her rescuers asked her to help with staunching the flow from her right arm until a tourniquet could be applied.
"He said...'you gotta hold onto this right arm...because that's your worst part,''' she recalled.
Still, she had no time to think about dying. She worried about her husband on the beach with their 16-year-old son.
"I kept saying, 'My husband's on the beach. You gotta find him,'" she said.
Korcsmaros was remarkably calm when she arrived at the hospital in critical condition after suffering what appeared to be a shark bite that stretched from her shoulder to her pelvic area, one of her doctors said at a briefing last week.
During the day Wednesday, Korcsmaros also shared her account with marine biology professor Chris Lowe, director of the SharkLab at California State University Long Beach. Later, after nine days of hospitalization at the Orange County Global Medical Center, she was discharged and able to return home.
Lowe saw evidence of two bite patterns, indicating that after the initial bite, the shark readjusted its grip before letting go. Lowe concluded it was likely an "investigative" or even "defensive" action by the shark, rather than a predatory ambush, which usually involves the shark violently bumping or even launching its prey, which Korcsmaros did not experience.
Lowe described the shark as a juvenile, 4-6 years old, likely still learning its way around, but large enough to pose a mortal threat. Most sharks birthed in the waters off Southern California head south during their first winter, and it is more common to find pups than juveniles, said Lowe, who believes the warmer coastal waters the past El Niño year have affected the usual pattern.
At least one white shark was sighted Tuesday off Sunset Beach, some 15 miles north of Corona del Mar. Whether it may have been the same shark that attacked Kocsmaros was something Lowe said could not be determined.
At this point, Lowe does not see reason to modify the standard lifeguard protocol to reopen a beach if 24 hours have elapsed without a further sighting of a larger shark. But he said open water swimmers should stay in groups rather than swimming alone. Among other reasons, he said sharks are less likely to approach several swimmers in close proximity.
"It's always better to be in groups," Lowe said.
Kocsmaros usually joins members of her Tri La Vie team for a group swim Sundays at Corona del Mar. But the day of the incident, she had gone on a trip to La Jolla with her husband and teen son. When they reached Corona del Mar the team had finished its swim, but she still wanted to get in her workout, so she went out alone as her husband watched from shore.
Korcsmaros was taken to Orange County Global, formerly Western Medical Center, in Santa Ana where her arm wounds and injuries required extensive surgery. In addition, Kocsmaros suffered two broken ribs, a lesion on her lung, damage to her liver, and a fractured pelvis. She still feels some discomfort breathing, and concerns remain about the recovery of the tricep muscle in her right arm.
But she has recovered enough to be discharged late Tuesday.
"My goal the next couple of weeks is to get more mobile and to get walking," said Korcsmaros, who will celebrate her 53rd birthday later this month.
Undeterred, she plans to resume training as soon as possible and before year end hopes to again race in a triathlon — though, with the swim leg in a lake or bay, not the open ocean.
She was asked to think back to that frightful moment in the water, and to try to pin down what it took to survive.
"I think deep inside," she said, "all of us have inner strength."