FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – His two adult granddaughters at his side, retired developer James Bertakis took to the Florida Intracoastal Waterway on his boat Wednesday afternoon for a peaceful cruise and to admire the waterfront mansions. Then a spotted eagle ray rocketed out of the water, landing in the boat and stabbing the 81-year-old in the chest as he tried to push it back in the water, his family said.

The freak occurrence, which brought to mind the stingray attack that killed “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, seriously injured Bertakis.

He had open-heart surgery at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale late Wednesday, according to another of Bertakis’ granddaughters, who lives in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

“Every time his heart pumps, it’s like a razor blade, it just keeps cutting,” Catherine Bertakis said, describing the poisonous stingray barb lodged in his chest.

The stinger also pierced James Bertakis’ lung, said son John Bertakis, from his office at the family business in Roseville, Mich. “Initially it seemed all right, but he lost a lot of blood,” he said. Some relatives were standing vigil at the hospital, relaying details back to relatives in Michigan, where the family owns Bertakis Development Inc. James Bertakis in 1972 founded the company, which specializes in manufactured homes and has property in Michigan and Texas.

“We’re all in a state of shock right now,” John Bertakis said. “We hope health and strength are on his side, he’s a strong man.”

Catherine Bertakis described her grandfather as an athlete who rarely gets sick.

“He lives in this 35-year-old body,” she said. “He should live to be 120 years old.”

James Bertakis was conscious after the attack and, with the help of his granddaughters, steered the boat back to his Lighthouse Point, Fla., home, where one of them called 911.

Firefighters and police found Bertakis with a foot-long barb in the left side of his chest.

“He was in pain from the toxins,” said Lt. Mike Sullivan of the Lighthouse Point Fire Department.

Firefighters initially took Bertakis to North Broward Medical Center, but hours later he was flown to Broward General for more treatment.

The stingray, which was about 5 feet wide, died on the boat, firefighters said. They kept it in a plastic bag and on ice until Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Officers could pick it up late Wednesday, Sullivan said.

In his 23 years with the fire department, he had never heard of such a stingray attack in Lighthouse Point.

Irwin, the popular, telegenic naturalist from Australia, died Sept. 4 after a similar rare accident. A stingray barb pierced him in the heart while he was filming on the Great Barrier Reef.

Carl Luer, senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., who studies sharks and rays, said spotted eagle rays often jump completely out of the water, although no one is sure why. “It can be very dramatic,” he said.

But certainly this ray had no aggressive intentions toward the boat, he said.

“That’s a very unusual accident,” Luer said. “I’ve never heard of an eagle ray jumping into a boat before. But I can tell you it was not trying to jump into the boat. It was a pure accident.”

Florida waters harbor four species of rays that have barbed tails: Atlantic stingrays, southern stingrays, spotted eagle rays and cownose rays. Anyone who encounters one, whether in a boat or any place else, should not touch it to avoid getting stung, he said.

“The best thing to do is to not try to handle it,” Luer said.

(South Florida Sun-Sentinel correspondents David Fleshler and Tal Abbady contributed to this report.)

(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-18-06 2207EDT

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