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Originally published Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 11:01 AM

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Bear-attack survivor describes sights, sounds of 'horrendous fight'

John Chelminiak, who was attacked by a bear at his summer home in Eastern Washington last month, gives a chilling account of the incident.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

One of the first things John Chelminiak did when he arrived at his family's cabin on Lake Wenatchee on Sept. 17 was fiddle with his satellite radio. His weekend agenda was listening to football, reading his Bellevue City Council packet and working on the cabin, possibly taking a hike.

By 8:30 p.m., when he took the family dogs out for their evening walk, he had forgotten the warning he'd given wife Lynn Semler as they pulled up. He had heard reports bears were around. He said they should be on the lookout over the weekend.

Chelminiak, 57, put leashes on dogs Boji and Peekaboo and headed down the gravel driveway toward the road. It was dark, and wet. He had just crossed the road about 75 feet from the house, and was putting on his headlamp when he heard a rustle in the bushes.

Then came the whoosh of an exhale and the scratch of nails on the road as the 150-pound bear launched itself at Chelminiak. Within seconds, he was fighting for his life.

Chelminiak, his face crisscrossed in stitches, his left eyelid sewn shut, recounted the black bear attack during a news conference Wednesday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, his first interview since the attack.

When Chelminiak first arrived at the hospital, he had nerve damage from deep lacerations to his face, with pieces of flesh and scalp hanging off his head, said Dr. Matthew Klein, a University of Washington Medicine plastic surgeon at Harborview. Chelminiak also suffered a cut on his neck so deep it reached his spine. He had wounds to his abdomen and lower body, and the injuries to his face were so severe doctors removed his left eye.

Chelminiak, a Bellevue City Council member, said his sight is good in his right eye, and he will get a prosthetic for his left. Klein said otherwise he expects Chelminiak to recover fully.

"It is a miracle," Klein said. "We're very proud of his progress. He's done tremendously well."

Chelminiak has undergone five surgeries since the attack and will likely need two or three more, Klein said. But he may be ready to go home next week.

"Physically, I feel really good," Chelminiak said Wednesday.

The black bear that mauled Chelminiak that night — which was later killed by state Fish and Wildlife officers — was determined to be a small female, about 150 pounds. The bear had a regular circuit on Lakeshore Drive, where it foraged in unsecured garbage cans for food, officials said. Chelminiak walked right into its path.

Fighting for survival

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Chelminiak's first response was to fight back, keep the bear behind him and stay upright. If he fell to the ground, he was sure he would die, he said.

He lost track of the dogs as the bear lunged and clawed at him, pushing him down. He kept getting back up. During one brief break in the attack, Chelminiak ran up the driveway toward the cabin. The bear rounded a corner and pounced on the dogs. Chelminiak, dog leashes still in his hand, pulled with all his strength and yanked them out from beneath the bear. One dog came out with a slight limp, but they were otherwise uninjured, Semler said.

The bear turned back to Chelminiak, who fought back again, jabbing it once with his knee. He remembered hearing the sound of teeth sinking into his scalp and scraping against his skull. He remembered yelling: "Call 911" and "Bear, bear!"

"It was just a horrendous fight," Chelminiak said.

Then, miraculously, it stopped. "It stopped just in time for me to survive it."

Semler, his wife, was inside the cabin with their daughter, 11-year-old Megan, making the beds when she heard noise outside. She thought it might be the neighbors and went downstairs to check. She heard Chelminiak yelling to call 911.

Their daughter dialed 911 and handed the phone to Semler and they ran out through the garage, Semler pausing to grab a small flashlight from the car. The motion-detector outdoor lights went on, which scared the bear away, wilderness officials said.

Semler thought at first the bear was a large dog and took a couple more steps before she figured out it was a bear. She ordered Megan back into the house. Chelminiak was lying at the bottom of the driveway near the road. Semler couldn't tell in the dark how badly injured he was, but she saw blood.

The 911 operator asked her if the bear was still around, and she saw it pacing down the road near a neighbor's house. Chelminiak wanted her to go back in the house, but Semler stayed with him. Wildlife officials said her presence and actions prevented the bear from coming back.

Chelminiak couldn't see. He was soaked in blood. But he was lucid and talking. She told him to stay quiet.

"I knew that he thought maybe he was dying," Semler said. "I wasn't ready for that."

It took roughly 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, Semler said. Medics took Chelminiak to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, and from there, he was airlifted to Harborview.

Attacks on humans rare

The state's black bear population is about 25,000, said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of operations for the enforcement program for state Fish and Wildlife. But attacks on humans are rare.

Chelminiak was right to fight back once he was attacked, Cenci said. Semler also was instrumental in saving his life, making noise and keeping the bear away from her injured husband, Cenci said.

On Wednesday, Chelminiak, who walked to the news conference, was in good spirits and cheerful. He said he plans to return to the cabin and the woods.

"It's not something I want to give up," he said. "I'm looking forward to going back."

He is eager to go home and get back to work, he said.

In the meantime, Chelminiak added, he told a family member recently he needs to get a T-shirt that says, "I won."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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