Hanging Tough

updated 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Bethany Hamilton and her surfing buddies, Halloween began as a day in paradise and ended like a scene from Jaws. A champion surfer expected to turn pro, Bethany, 13, was paddling off the Hawaiian island of Kauai when she encountered what authorities believe was a 14-to 15-ft.-long, 1-ton tiger shark—although the animal struck so quickly, not one of the half dozen other surfers nearby saw it. "She was paddling in, not really trying to catch a wave, just playing and making little happy, squeaky noises," says fellow surfer Jeff Walba, 52, who was with Hamilton and her friends about an eighth of a mile from shore. "There wasn't even a ripple. She thrust her hand down into a wave, and then her arm was gone."

Although her left arm had been severed four inches below her shoulder, Bethany—whose prowess in amateur competitions had earned her corporate sponsorships from surf-wear companies including Rip Curl—began paddling toward her companions. "She never screamed," recalls Walba. "She said, 'Shark,' but didn't freak." While Walba made for shore to call for help, Holt Blanchard, 49, the father of Bethany's best friend Alana, 13, applied a tourniquet fashioned from a surfboard leash to stop the bleeding. That quick thinking—plus the fact that Bethany is in peak physical condition—almost certainly saved her life. "The biggest risks with shark bites are blood loss and shock," says shark expert Kim Holland, a researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. Rushed to Kauai's Wilcox Memorial Hospital, Bethany bumped her father, Tom, 55, off the operating table, where he had been scheduled to undergo routine knee surgery.

Expected to receive a prosthetic arm and otherwise fully recover, Bethany seems ready to hit the surf again. Shortly after surgery, she told her youth pastor Troy Gall, "I want to get back in the water." Her mother, Cheri, 50, likely flinches at the thought. "I cried all night the first night," she says. Cheri waited anxiously with Tom and Bethany's brothers Tim, 17, and Noah, 21. "But Bethany is fine," she says. "She's positive and upbeat." Those who've seen her in action don't doubt she'll ride again. "You can tell she's going to be a champion," says Walba. "She's the best."

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