ST. PETERS, Mo. — With her left arm snared in the jaws of a killer crocodile, Sandy Rossi had to make a life-or-death decision.
"I knew from the beginning it was a choice between my arm and my life," she said. "I chose to fight for my life."
It was a fight she won, losing her arm but escaping from one of the world's deadliest creatures. A year later, the 28-year-old Missouri woman is preparing to return this fall to the same remote African rain forest where she was attacked.
"I have to--that crocodile still has my watch," she joked.
That sort of humor has helped Rossi overcome the trauma of the attack and the loss of her arm. The vanity license plates on her car read "BITN."
"I tried for 'HOOK' and they denied me that," she said. "Then I went for 'LEFTY,' but that was taken too."
The attack occurred in March, 1993, in Zaire's Epulu River. Rossi was in the central African nation as a tutor for the daughters of a husband-and-wife research team studying rain forest flora and fauna.
Rossi, the two girls and another American researcher had gone to the river to bathe and escape the oppressive heat and humidity. As dusk fell, Rossi ordered the girls out of the water. She took a minute longer to rinse soap from her long, strawberry blond hair.
That's when the crocodile attacked.
The Epulu isn't normal habitat for the Nile crocodile. Apparently, though, a lone croc had wandered down from another river.
The Nile is one of the world's largest and most deadly crocodiles, said Charles Hoessle, director of the St. Louis Zoo and a crocodile expert. They measure up to 30 feet long and feed on large game.
"They don't seek out humans, but they'll attack them like they would any other animal," Hoessle said.
But this crocodile met its match in Sandy Rossi.
"Basically, I outlasted him," she said.
As soon as the reptile clamped its jaws on her left forearm, it pulled her under water.
"I came up groping for air and yelled, 'Crocodile!"' she recalled.
Her friend, Ken Cochrane, thought she was kidding until Rossi managed to pull the animal's snout out of the water, where Cochrane could see his grip on her bloody forearm.
"It was at this point that Ken came running over," she said. "It was also at this point that the crocodile knew I wouldn't be an easy kill, so he started his death rolls."
He rolled her under water repeatedly, trying to drown her, but Rossi surprised herself by remaining calm and clearheaded.
"You could just feel the power," Rossi said. "He'd yank me back and forth to see if I was dead yet. Then he'd roll me some more."
With help from Cochrane, Rossi struggled to her feet and, finally, her arm "just basically came off." The crocodile, perhaps too exhausted to finish the kill, swam away.
Natives have spotted that same crocodile several times since. A few months ago, he attacked and killed a 14-year-old boy in the Epulu.
Hoessle said few humans survive in-water attacks by crocodiles.
"She's very lucky to be alive," he said.
Since the attack, Rossi has become proficient with her prosthesis, a lightweight model developed by NASA. She works with weights and does aerobics as she prepares for her return to Zaire, where she'll work with the same family she left behind last March.
Despite the brutal conditions in Zaire--hot and humid, with no electricity or running water in Rossi's small hut--she loved it.
At night, Rossi and other Westerners would gather in a screened-in porch with a view of the river. They'd listen to the cackling noises and whistles of the rain forest and feel the moist African air on their faces.
"We'd sit out there and say, 'God, we're so lucky to be here,' " Rossi said.
Rossi befriended a tribe of Pygmies and learned to appreciate their spirit.
"Life in Africa is very hard on everybody--there's always some sort of disease you can pick up," she said. "One of the ways the Africans get by is they laugh at everything. Somehow or another, they're able to see that life goes on."
And like her Pygmy friends, Rossi has learned that life goes on. She admits it's tough at times.
"I don't think you're ever quite over it," she said. "But then again, I did not fight for my life for 20 minutes to come back and be depressed. It's much too important to get on with my life."
Hoping to become more involved in rain forest research upon her return to Zaire, Rossi has been studying at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the zoo in St. Louis.
At the zoo, Rossi often finds herself at the crocodile pits.
"I'll just stand there and look at the crocodiles," she said. "But I don't fear them."