TODAY

TODAY   |  October 07, 2010

Survivor recalls ‘horrendous fight’ with bear

John Chelminiak, a Seattle man who lost an eye in a bear attack, recalls how he was “bitten on the head” and heard the sound of the bear’s teeth “running along the skull.” NBC’s Lee Cowan reports.

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MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: The survivor of a vicious black bear attack in Washington state is speaking out for the first time about the incredible encounter that nearly killed him. NBC 's Lee Cowan has his story. Lee , good morning.

LEE COWAN reporting: Morning, Meredith . Yeah, few people survive the kind of bear attack and mauling that this man did. He describes it essentially as a wrestling match between himself and a brown bear . Somehow he came out on top, but just barely. He's been through five surgeries, lost his left eye, and has teeth marks from head to toe, but that's considered a victory if you're in a battle with a black bear .

Mr. JOHN CHELMINIAK: I need to get a T-shirt that says, "I won."

COWAN: The attack happened while John Chelminiak was taking his dogs for a walk near Lake Wenatchee in central Washington last month. All he heard was the sound of bear claws on the pavement and then hot breath.

Mr. CHELMINIAK: We hit, we went down. I got back up, she got back on top of me. I was trying to push her aside.

COWAN: The 911 call is chilling.

Unidentified 911 Operator: Nine-one-one, what's the location of your emergency?

Ms. LYNN SEMLER (Wife): I'm at North Shore Road and my husband's been attacked by a bear.

911 Operator: Your husband's been attacked by a bear?

Mr. CHELMINIAK: I'm dying!

Ms. SEMLER: He said he's dying!

Ms. SEMLER: I know that he thought maybe he was going...

Mr. CHELMINIAK: Yeah.

Ms. SEMLER: ...but I wasn't ready for that.

COWAN: But when paramedics arrived, it didn't look good.

Dr. MATTHEW KLEIN (Plastic Surgeon): He had -- several parts of his face and scalp were hanging off with areas of bone exposed.

COWAN: Somehow, John stayed conscious throughout the attack, and what he remembers is unsettling at best.

Mr. CHELMINIAK: I just vividly remember being bitten on the head and the sound that that makes as it was -- as her -- as her teeth were going into my head and running along the skull. It was just a horrendous fight.

COWAN: His only chance, he thought, was to keep the bear behind him.

Mr. CHELMINIAK: I felt that if I went down on the ground and I got turned over on my back and she had a chance to go for either a neck or the abdomen, that I was probably dead.

COWAN: John doesn't know why the bear stopped her attack. Authorities who later tracked her down and killed her said she was old and malnourished. Whatever the reason, the tranquility of that vacation house hasn't been marred. In fact, John says, he can't wait to get back. And, Meredith , he's got at least three more surgeries that are scheduled, most having to do with those skin grafts to his scalp. But if everything goes as planned, doctors say he could be going home as early as next week. Meredith :