50 deputies, Florida Fish and Wildlife and alligator trappers have been searching several hours to recover the child

By Char Adams and Karen Mizoguchi
Updated June 14, 2016 10:45 PM
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

A desperate father wrestled with the alligator that dragged his 2-year-old son into a lagoon Tuesday night near a Walt Disney World hotel in Orlando, authorities say.

Rescue teams continued scouring the Seven Seas Lagoon on Wednesday in search of the toddler who was taken in to the water by the alligator at around 9:30 p.m, according to the Associated Press.

“We are very hopeful,” Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jeff Williamson said. “Sometimes you get the worst, but we are hoping for the best.”

The Nebraska family was lounging at the lagoon near Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in an area where “no swimming” signs were posted, Sheriff Jerry L. Demings said at a Tuesday news conference.

“There’s a sandy beach area and the family was out simply relaxing they had another child and a baby playpen … and they were simply relaxing out in the area and wading just in the water along the lake’s edge,” Demings said.

The boy was playing in about a foot of water when the alligator – estimated to be 4 to 7 feet long – grabbed the boy.

“The father entered the water and tried to grab the child, was not successful in doing so,” Sheriff Jerry L. Demings said at a Tuesday news conference. “At some point, I’m told, that the mother also may have entered the water. So the parents diligently tried to get the child.”

In a statement to PEOPLE, Walt Disney World Vice President Jacquee Wahler said: “Everyone here at the Walt Disney World Resort is devastated by this tragic accident. Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”

Dozens of deputies, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials and alligator trappers were on scene searching for the child. Authorities have captured and euthanized four alligators, NBC News reports, but none reportedly showed signs of being involved in the attack.

“We’re not leaving until we recover the child,” Demings said Tuesday. “As a father, as a grandfather, we’re going to hope for the best in these circumstances, but based upon my 35 years of law enforcement experience, we know that we have some challenges ahead of us at this time.”

Authorities were looking for the child by water and air, and are calling the situation a search and rescue operation, the Orlando Sentinel reports. However, Demings said “the sad reality of it is it’s been several hours and we’re not likely going to recover a live body.”

“Right now we’re going to bring in some fresh eyes and continue with the search, Williamson said Wednesday morning, according to the Sentinel.

“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

The Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is one of three hotels owned and operated by Disney.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted about the tragedy on Wednesday, writing that he and his wife “are praying for the Nebraska family.”

“No family should ever have to experience such horror,” he tweeted. “Our hearts go out to them.”

One witness wrote on social media that attack occurred outside of her window.

“A small child was dragged into the lagoon right outside my room,” Katherine Popp wrote in an Instagram post. “I’m standing outside watching them search for someone’s baby.”

Popp continued posting photos and videos of the scene Tuesday night, writing in one shot that officials have “asked us to close our blinds to prevent reflections.”

The attack is just the latest tragedy to occur in the state this week. At least 49 people died and dozens were injured on Sunday when a gunman opened fire on the Orlando gay-friendly nightclub, Pulse. Just days earlier, on Friday, The Voice alum Christina Grimmie died after being shot at her Orlando concert.