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Woman Killed in Shark Attack Died Quickly

The victim was bitten twice while swimming off Avila Beach. The great white that struck her was 15 to 18 feet long, a biologist says.

August 21, 2003|Sally Ann Connell | Special to The Times

AVILA BEACH, Calif. — It was a 15- to 18-foot great white shark that attacked and killed a sociology professor who died very quickly from her catastrophic wounds, authorities said Wednesday.

Deborah Blanche Franzman, 50, received a large bite to her left side near the hip, and another on the lower part of her right leg, according to state marine biologist Robert Lea, an expert for the California Department of Fish and Game who was present at the autopsy.

"There were extensive lacerations, clear bites and possible additional cuts," said Lea, who estimated the length of the shark based on the bite marks.

He said the femoral artery and vein were cut in the attack. Franzman was the 10th person to die from a shark bite in California waters since the early 1950s.

"The pathologist said this was a catastrophic attack, not survivable," said Lt. Martin Basti, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department. Basti said Franzman would have died within one or two minutes.

News of the speed of her death provided some slight element of relief to friends and colleagues of Franzman.

"She was just a loving mother who worshipped her son, Alex," said Candia Varni, a fellow sociology professor at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

"All I can say is her entire thoughts would have been focused on him in those last moments."

Franzman made a routine of swimming in the early hours in the calm waters far offshore from Avila Beach, a resort community nine miles south of San Luis Obispo. On Tuesday, her partner, Tessa, waited on the beach with their two dogs and witnessed the attack, according to friends.

The ocean Franzman swam in was full of seals eating small sardines. Some experts say sharks see the silhouette of a swimmer in a wetsuit and fins, like Franzman was wearing, as similar to a that of a seal.

Douglas Long, a marine mammal expert for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said sharks seem to attack humans by accident. For that reason, they do not stay and eat injured victims. "After an attack [on humans], they leave the scene," he said. "I have seen them eat a seal, and it's completely different."

Since the incident, the waters at Avila and in the vicinity have been closed to swimmers, but are scheduled to reopen this morning.

"We will advise people to swim where there are lifeguards, swim close to shore, and not to remain where marine mammals are," said Casey Nielsen, operations manager for the Port San Luis Harbor District.

At Allan Hancock College where Franzman taught sociology, students and co-workers created a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and cards outside her office door.

Leona Evans, minister at Unity Church of San Luis Obispo, where Franzman was an active board member, remembered Franzman as having had an almost religious commitment to exercise.

"I believe it was part of her meditation," Evans said. "If there is anything good about this, it is that she died doing what she loved doing: swimming with seals."

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