Little Joe's thick fingers curled around the leg of the terrified toddler in Courtney Roberson's arms, and then the 300-pound gorilla pushed open the door and grabbed Roberson.
"He picked me up by my shirt, lifted me off the ground, and tossed me," Roberson said yesterday. "When Joe threw me, I dropped Nia. . . . Nia was screaming the whole time."
Nia S. Scott was 2 years and 9 months old on Sept. 28, 2003, when a late afternoon visit to Franklin Park Zoo ended with a harrowing confrontation with a Western lowland gorilla who had outwitted his keepers and escaped from his exhibition space.
"I couldn't believe that I was just attacked by a gorilla at the zoo," Roberson said in Suffolk Superior Court, where Nia's mother is suing Zoo New England and five top officials. "I couldn't believe it happened."
Roberson, who took Nia and three other children to the zoo that day, was the first witness in the civil lawsuit filed by Nia's mother, Terrasita Duarte-Scott, which contends that Nia suffered physical injuries as a result of the encounter and that both mother and daughter have suffered persistent psychological damage.
Roberson said that after attacking her, Little Joe suddenly shifted his attention to the child. As Roberson ran to get help, she looked back.
"The last time I seen Nia, I saw her in front of the Tropical Forest, being attacked by Joe," said Roberson, who was 18 at the time and has her own lawsuit pending. "I remember crying, 'I can't help her!' "
In his opening statement, Scott's attorney, Donald Gibson, accused zookeepers of failing to build a safe exhibition space. He said the gorilla, then 10 years old, had nearly escaped in 1999 and had also escaped the exhibition area, but not the building, in August 2003.
Gibson said that the once-outgoing girl now has nightmares and has become wary. The relationship between mother and daughter, he said, was altered because of her encounter with the ape.
In their opening statements, lawyers for the zoo and its officials acknowledged that Nia Scott had been injured, but urged jurors to closely question the extent of those injuries.
Kevin Kenneally, representing Zoo New England, suggested that the child started and stopped therapy at Gibson's urging.
He also suggested there may be no connection between the incident at the zoo and any emotional difficulties the child may have.
"There are other things in life that can affect people, especially young children," Kenneally said.
After the attack, the gorilla exhibit was shut down, and the zoo spent three years and $2.3 million building a new exhibition space for the apes, which has since reopened.
Roberson, who is close with Nia Scott's mother, said she took Nia and three girls, ranging in ages from 6 to 9, to the zoo, where she worked in guest services.
Roberson said that they entered the tropical forest exhibit area around 5:45 p.m. She said that she understood it was zoo policy to remove the apes from public display around 5:30 p.m. and that she did not expect any apes when they entered.
But Little Joe and two other apes were out. After they had been in the building for a few minutes, Roberson said, she heard a boom and one of the girls ran to her, shouting that Little Joe had escaped.
Roberson said they ran down a long hallway toward the exterior door, and at one point she looked back and saw that Little Joe was pursuing.
When she got to the doors, Roberson said, she realized that Nia had fallen behind and ran back to pick up the child. She had Nia in her arms and had made it outside, when the gorilla slammed into the exterior doors and grabbed Nia's leg.
After Little Joe threw her to the ground, Roberson said, she saw the gorilla standing over the girl on all fours, with his right arm swinging toward her.
She said the gorilla swung his arm at Nia up to eight times, but acknowledged that she never saw if Little Joe struck the child.
The trial resumes today with John Linehan, chief executive officer, on the stand. The girl is expected to testify later in the trial.