The Polk County deputies were responding to multiple calls about a man yelling for help at about 4 a.m. They could not shoot the animal because it was too dark and they might have hit the victim or one another, the sheriff's office said.
Adrian J. Apgar was taken to the hospital in critical condition with an apparent broken right arm, leg injuries and his left arm hanging by a tendon. Hospital officials did not immediately release information about his condition.
"It is an incredibly bacteria-filled environment that he was exposed to," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
It was not clear why Apgar was in the lake. Judd said Apgar was naked and told deputies he had been smoking crack.
The deputies — Michael Parker, Billy Osborne, David Clements and Sgt. Andrew Williams — carried Apgar about 40 feet, up a steep incline and to an ambulance ashore. None of the four was injured in the gator-infested waters.
"I remember him saying, 'I'm over here, get here quick, he's still got me, he's going to kill me, my arms are broken,"' Parker said.
The deputies' boots sunk in mud with each step they took, and the water lapped chest-high on some. It took several efforts to get the 6-foot-1, 250-pound man out of the water even after the gator let loose because they were exhausted. They had to find the man by sound, through thick brush and cattails in the middle of the night.
A state wildlife official said investigators are unsure whether Apgar was on land or in the water when he was attacked. Apgar told officials he fell asleep on the beach before the alligator dragged him into the water. However, Judd said deputies aren't sure the man's account is accurate because of his drugged condition, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
At various points, one or two of the deputies were standing by, weapons pulled, on the lookout for other gators. Apgar told them he felt at least one more in the water.
"I was holding my shotgun. It's kind of hard to walk through that with a flashlight and a shotgun," Parker said.
Osborne said he pulled Apgar's arms while the gator gripped his lower half. The reptile loosened his jaws and Osborne thought he was free, but the animal lunged again.
The deputies said they were scared, but didn't have time to think.
"It was a human being, he was dying. He needed help," Osborne said. "I knew my partners were behind me. They were watching; I wasn't too afraid another gator was going to get me."
The alligator believed to have bitten the man was caught at about 1 p.m., roughly seven hours after Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission trappers set out bait. Though there's no way to be certain it's the right one, the animal caught was aggressive and found near the attack site.
"I said, 'Well how big did you think the alligator was?' (The deputies) said 'about the size of a school bus,"' Judd said.
It took 15-20 minutes to pull Apgar to shore from the moment they arrived on scene, the deputies estimated.