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Bonita man might be first coral snake victim in 40 years
Bonita man might be first coral snake victim in 40 years

Stanford University snake venom expert says no deaths from coral snakes have been reported since the 1960s

By Kate Spinner

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

When the coral snake slithered among them a couple hours before dusk Saturday, the men had been sitting around drinking long-neck bottles of Budweiser in a wide and littered clearing they had made for themselves in the saw palmettos.

Within a couple hours, one man would be dead and another in the hospital, clutching a gallon bottle stuffed with the battered snake.

According to the Lee County Sheriff's Office, Fernando Hernandez, 29, collapsed at the edge of the Seminole Collier Railroad a few yards west of Buffalo Chips restaurant on Old 41 Road and died from a snake bite. Medic Paul Fergueson pronounced Hernandez dead at 10:15 p.m. The medical examiner's office is awaiting toxicology reports to confirm the cause of death.

Robert Norris, a snake venom expert and chief of emergency medicine at Stanford University, said he suspects Hernandez is the first coral snake fatality on record in the United States since the discovery of anti-venom 40 years ago. Since the 1960s, he said, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

"It's possible that one could slip through the cracks, but this is very unusual," Norris said. "If there are others, they've not been put in the medical literature."

Another expert isn't so sure medical history was made Saturday.

Joseph Gennaro, a retired professor from the University of Florida Medical Center, said several people in Florida receive coral snake bites each month and he surmised that although death from a coral snake bite is rare it does occur.

Gennaro said that unlike the fiery sting of a rattlesnake bite, the bite of a coral snake feels as faint as a pin prick. Sometimes people don't even know when they've been bitten, Gennaro said.

The venom is also insidious, working its way slowly through the bloodstream, gradually numbing nerves. A victim's inability to keep his or her eyes open is the first sign of poison, but it can take an hour or two for that poison to set in. When it does set in, the victim suffocates from lung paralysis.

He said treatment of a bite is arduous and requires pressure immobilization bandages as well as anti-venom. Two years ago a man was bit in Gainesville and it took 20 days for him to recover, Gennaro said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Ilena LiMarzi said Jesus Moreida, also bitten by the coral snake, rode his bicycle from woods to the Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue Station. She said an ambulance took him to North Collier Hospital, but the hospital had no record of a man by that name. Neither did Lee County Memorial.

Barely visible past the row of tattered mobile homes that sit behind Buffalo Chips, a splash of blue tarp peeks out from the overgrown saw palmettos and towering slash pines that stand between the railroad tracks and Rosemary Creek, which borders the restaurant's property.

Under the cover of the forest, men live in tents and stroll a network of trails to grill fish by the creek, eat a snack of sardines by the railroad or drink alcohol in a burnt clearing littered with beer cans, beer bottles, food containers, plastic wrappers and the general refuse of daily life without curbside pickup.

The trails branch like mazes through the sharp brambles and bushes and they lead over the creek to a sidewalk just south of the restaurant.

Jose Luis Morales has been living in the woods for 10 years and has seen plenty of venomous snakes in Rosemary Creek and by the railroad.

He proved it Monday afternoon by holding up a half-dead water moccasin with a long stick. He charged past the creek bed and into a clearing where he dropped the snake to the dirt and hammered it to death.

No doubt there are venomous snakes in the woods, but Morales never saw a man die the way Hernandez did.

"He was a good guy with all respect," Morales said. "That's why we all cried."

Morales said Hernandez, whom he referred to as Cresencio Hernandez, originally of Ocotlan de Morelos near Oaxaca, Mexico, rented an apartment in Old Bonita Springs. The Sheriff's Office reported he worked part time for Able Body, a company that hires workers for odd jobs on a day-to-day, first-come basis.

Five men milled around by the creek with Morales on Monday, wearing sorrowful faces and stained clothes while they sipped from cans of Natural Light.

Standing by the creek, one man scaled sunfish beside a black charcoal grill and placed the prepared fish in a small bucket. In the milky water of the creek two long-nose gar investigated the bank for a moment before swimming away.

Except for the cell phones the men carry and the beer, life is at its most basic living out there in tents by the railroad. There a no bathrooms, no vehicles, no easy ride to the hospital.

Sometimes, out there, fear or drunkenness or a combination of both obfuscates good judgment, as it did the night Hernandez passed away.

Tiny as it was, the serpentine visitor, with gold and crimson bands ringing its body, was unwelcome in the home the men had made for themselves.

Daniel Gonzalez beat the snake with a branch, but it didn't retreat. Hernandez took a few whacks at the creature, chasing it toward Jesus Moreida, who remained seated on the ground. Moreida grabbed the reptile to move it out of the way, but it bit him in the hand. In a rage, Hernandez stomped on it. Then he broke a beer bottle and with the jagged glass began to slash the snake. Meanwhile the snake also bit him several times on the forearm, according to a Lee County Sheriff's report.

With the dead snake in the gallon container, Moreida hopped on a bicycle and rode through the saw palmetto maze. He emerged on the Old 41 sidewalk and pedaled to the Fire Station less than a mile away. From there he got a ride to the hospital, said Joseph Lawhon, Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue District captain.

Back at the camp, Gonzalez and Hernandez continued to drink. They grabbed a can of sardines and went to eat the food by the railroad tracks, according to Morales who was sleeping at the time and heard the story secondhand.

As daylight waned, Alfredo Lucas disturbed Morales' slumber to tell him that Fernandez had died. Several men said they called 911, but the sheriff's report credits Gonzalez for the call at 7:44 p.m.

Morales pointed out the spot where his friend had died, a bare patch of earth that sloped to the train track. From the pine trees, yellow strands of police tape still swayed in the slight breeze.

Staff writer Brad Kane contributed to this story.
#1 | Cro on June 20 2006 00:24:42
I allways suspected that drinking those long-neck bottles of Budweiser was deadly ! Now we have proof. Cool
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