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After grizzly attack, JBER victim thought, 'This is how I'm going to die'

Craig Medred

A young California mother attacked by a grizzly bear while running along a remote road through the woods at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on the outskirts of Alaska's largest city says she was at one point sure she was going to die.

In a video interview with military officials 12 days after the attack, Jessica Gamboa, the wife of a soldier on the base and mother of a 4-year-old son, said she thought her life was over after the bear knocked her to the ground, picked her up by her backside, carried her across the road, dropped her to the ground, and worked her over twice more before finally leaving her broken and bleeding.

"I paused then for a few minutes ... maybe two, laying there, and telling myself, 'I think pretty much this is how I'm going to die,"' she said.

As happens with most victims of maulings by sow grizzlies with cubs, however, Gamboa did not die. The bear mauled her until it concluded she was no threat to the cubs and then left. Gamboa eventually got to her feet and walked to where she happened to meet Sgt. Collin Gillikin from Michigan, who just happened to be driving down the road, headed for a base lake and a morning of fishing.

A senior Army medic, Gillikin loaded Gamboa into his truck and rushed her to the base hospital. He said in another interview recorded by military authorities that when he first encountered the mud-covered Gamboa, she was standing in the road holding her neck. He thought she was just a tired runner.

"She didn't seem to be in distress," he said. Gillikin stopped, got out of his truck and asked, "What's going on? She said, 'I was attacked by a bear.'"

'Massive amount of blood'

As Gillikin went to help Gamboa into his truck, he realized for the first time that the grit caking her body was dirt turned to mud by blood. Once she was in the cab, he noted the seriousness of her injuries.

"I was in pure amazement this woman was still talking," he said. "I saw a massive amount of blood on her chest."

He told Gamboa to maintain the pressure of her hands on her neck as he raced for the hospital and called 911 on his cell phone. He worried Gamboa might bleed out, although he saw no arterial bleeding that required immediate treatment. He calculated the best thing to do was get her to the hospital fast, given that he'd cleaned all the first-aid supplies out of his truck days earlier.

"I didn't even have an old T-shirt back there," he said.

Gamboa was treated at the base hospital and then transferred to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, which has one of the state's top trauma centers. She remains there on blood thinners with doctors monitoring a worrisome clot in her head.

"They had to reattach almost all of my ear," she said in the interview. She has long gashes on the back of her head, a neck fracture, gashes in her right thigh, gashes under her arm and what she described as "punctures all over my body." And "I'm bruised all over," she added.

But the blond, fit Gamboa, who was training for a half-marathon when attacked, appeared alert and spirited in the video. She isn't sure how much longer she will be hospitalized, but seemed more concerned about how her son and family back home in California are dealing with her injuries.

"My mom just about freaked out," she said. "They were shocked, of course."

Shortly after Gamboa was attacked, one base official described her effort to survive as "heroic," but Gamboa offered a much more analytical account of someone assessing a situation and making careful, calculated decisions about what to do to survive.

She stayed on the ground and played dead until the bear left her alone, waited awhile to make sure it was gone, and then sat up to look and see if the bear remained in the area.

"I didn't see anything," she said. "My first thought was to get somewhere where you're more visible."

She crawled out in the road and lay on her back.

"I could see blood just everywhere," she said. "I could feel pulsing out of my neck. I knew I was in bad shape."

She yelled for husband Jacob, with whom she'd started the day's run. A faster runner, Jacob had gone ahead. When yelling didn't bring him back, Jessica said, she thought, "Now what?"

She looked to the sky, she said, and "I started praying." She asked for the strength to walk back to the couple's truck.

"Immediately after that, I got on my feet," she said. Her left leg was in bad shape, but the right leg was fine. She started limping down the road, holding her neck.

"I didn't let go of my neck," she said. "I had a feeling I was very badly wounded on my neck."

She thought about her son at home.

"He's all I wanted to live for," she said. Thinking about that, she walked around a bend in the trail and up a hill before she saw a white vehicle coming her way. She thought at first it was her husband in their truck. "Then I realized it was a quite different make," she said.

Bear disappears after attack

Where the bears went after the attack is unknown. Base wildlife officials this week said they couldn't even confirm whether it was a sow with one or two cubs that attacked Gamboa, or whether the cubs were born this year or last. Wildlife biologists say grizzly sows with cubs of the year are the most protective and thus often the most aggressive grizzly bears.

In her interview, Gamboa clearly describes an encounter with a cub of the year and says she saw a second cub.

The first, she said, was "just a little cub" in grass on the left side of the road. "Immediately,” she said, “my thoughts were 'OK, where's the mama bear?’ "

Instead of continuing her run as if she hadn't seen the cub, Jessica slowed down. "I looked back to my left and the mama bear was already coming toward me." The sow was coming fast, but not that fast.

"I wouldn't say running, but like a horse trots," she said. "Not slow walking."

If Jessica had been running with a container of bear spray in her hand like a running baton -- something some Anchorage runners now do on wilderness trails -- she might have been able to take defensive action. But Jessica had no spray.

'She went to town again'

Lacking options, she said, she put her hands in front of her and tried to indicate to the bear she meant no harm -- "not that that says anything to a mama bear.

"(Then) I put my back kind of maybe toward her," she said. "She knocked me ... down with her front (legs)."

At that point, Jessica made the wise decision to play dead.

"I do know she picked me up at one point in time," Jessica said. The bear carried her across the road either by the thigh or buttocks to be closer to the cubs.

"I played dead as best I could," Jessica said. "She kind of went to town again."

"She kind of flopped me over down on the grassy side" of the road. Jessica curled up in the fetal position. The bear slapped and bit her again. Jessica stayed still. And the bear "did that one more time and then she went away."

The runner was left with a profound appreciation for the forces of nature.

"Never underestimate the power of nature," she said. "If you were to see a bear, take it very seriously...It will tear you up. No joke. He doesn't know no human language. To even try to back up to say 'I mean no harm'" doesn't work.

She advised everyone in Alaska to learn how to deal with bears. There are bear safety courses available, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game publishes excellent educational materials. State wildlife biologists warn, too, as Jessica learned, that you can run into a bear almost anywhere in the 49th state.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'I actually can't even believe this actually really happened," Jessica said. "It seems still surreal."