ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As the grizzly furiously thrashed him about in the Alaska wilderness, all Sam Gottsegen could think about was what he would miss: college, traveling, life. “I thought: ‘I’m going to die,”’ the 17-year-old Denver resident said. “I thought, ‘This just can’t be happening to me.' ”
Then the bear left, only to return a moment later to continue mauling him and his other teenage friends. When the minute-long attack ended, four teens, including Gottsegen, were injured. Three others were unhurt.
The attack Saturday night in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage came as the group was nearing the end of a 30-day course to learn how to survive in the backcountry. The teens were at the stage of the course where they could try out their skills without adults around.
Authorities believe the bear was aggressive because it was with its cub. Gottsegen said no one ever saw a cub.
The group was hiking through bushes that got so thick they decided to wade through a river, walking in single file. Around a bend in the river, Joshua Berg, 17, of New City, N.Y., began yelling “Bear! Bear!”
The bear took him down first. The animal made angry, snarling noises as it attacked, Gottsegen told The Associated Press from his hospital bed in Anchorage, recounting the attack.
It was so sudden. There was no time to pull out their bear deterrent spray and no one had a gun. Berg, badly wounded, called for someone to set off the personal locator beacon they carried for emergencies.
Gottsegen said everyone scattered and he ran, even though the students had been told to play dead.
His instincts wouldn’t let him, though.
“When I heard that bear, when I saw it, it was all just like natural instincts,” he said. “All night long I was thinking I should have played dead.”
He kicked at the grizzly, to no avail.
Then the bear struck him, biting him on the head, lashing out at the teen’s arms and chest, puncturing a lung and breaking two ribs. The attack on the group probably lasted less than a minute, he said.
Shane Garlock, who was uninjured, said at a Monday afternoon news conference that the sounds of the attack are what haunt him.
“Whenever I tell this, I usually outline the screaming that I could hear from my friends and the growls from the bear, which were loud and deep, and the screams, which were hopeless screaming, and I can still hear it in my head,” he said.
After the attack was over, it started raining.
The teens set up a camp and tended to the injured, making good use of their survival skills. They plugged a deep wound in Gottsegen’s torso with a plastic trash bag secured with an Ace bandage.
They also activated the beacon.
Patricia Allaire, the mother of another injured student, Noah Allaire, 16, of Albuquerque, N.M., said her son initially tried to activate the beacon, thinking the bear was gone, but then it struck again.
The bear thrashed the teen’s head and back and slightly puncturing a lung. He was listed in good condition Monday at a hospital, and he appeared later in the day at the news conference at the school’s academy in Palmer.
Authorities received Allaire’s signal at around 9:30 p.m. Saturday, and dispatched rescuers.
A trooper and pilot in a helicopter located the students in a tent shortly before 3 a.m. They decided the two most seriously injured would need a medical transport aircraft.
The trooper and another student stayed with the badly injured teens for a couple hours until more rescuers arrived in a specially equipped helicopter, Gottsegen said.
The uninjured student who remained was 16-year-old Samuel Boas, of Westport, Conn.
Boas has training as an emergency medical technician, said Bruce Palmer, the spokesman for the National Outdoor Leadership School, a Lander, Wyo.-based organization that leads many such excursions.
The group operated the backcountry training course.
The other students injured were Victor Martin, 18, of Richmond, Calif., who was treated at a hospital for a bite wound above his ankle and then released, according to Palmer.
The teens were in the 24th day of their course when the attack occurred. Gottsegen said they had been calling out to alert bears of human presence as they traveled.
Berg remained in serious condition Monday, while Gottsegen was upgraded to good from serious.
Allaire said he was impressed with the care given to him and others by his fellow group members.
“More than anything else, I’m impressed by these guys’ ability to prioritize and treat those and just get things done out there, get the people who needed the care the care they needed.”