Bellevue council member in stable condition after bear attack | UPDATE

John Chelminiak - Courtesy Photo
John Chelminiak
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

City council member John Chelminiak remains in stable condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after suffering a bear attack last Friday evening near his vacation home near Lake Wenatchee.

Chelminiak has been in the hospital since he was airlifted there Sept. 17, and he underwent several reconstructive surgeries to heal puncture wounds in the face and head caused by the attack.

"He's certainly doing better," fellow council member Grant Degginger said Monday. "He went through a lot of surgery on Saturday. He was able to talk to the family and crack a few jokes."

Chelminiak was attacked by an 8-to-10-year-old, 149-pound female black bear in the driveway of his vacation home, said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of field operations for the Department of Fish and Wildlife's enforcement division.

Chelminiak's wife, Lynn Semler, said Monday no timetable for a full recovery has been set. He was moved out of the intensive care unit Tuesday, but he will remain in the hospital so doctors can monitor his progress.

"We're just taking it day-by-day," she said. "They are watching so carefully so there's no infection."

Chelminiak will remain absent from the council while he recuperates. The remaining council members unanimously voted Monday night to grant him excused absences from meetings up to Oct. 25, with the possibility of extension should the recovery take longer.

Semler said her husband remains in good spirits, and he just needs time and rest to heal. She said people have consistently reached out to the family for support since the attack, which has really helped them during this difficult period. Chelminiak cannot see visitors or take calls at this time, so she urged people to contact him through his Facebook page.

The attack occurred in the driveway of the home while Chelminiak was walking his dogs around 8:45 p.m. Semler heard cries of "bear, bear" from outside. She handed the phone to her 11-year-old daughter to dial 911, while she prepared to go outside and find Chelminiak. In her attempt to check on her wounded husband, Semler scared the bear off until medical assistance could arrive.

"I'm just headed down that driveway, and I did confront the bear," she said. "I thought it was a big black dog. When I got down there my reaction was just to stay on the phone and tell them what was going on. I was just hoping for those EMTs to come quickly."

While waiting for assistance and tending to her husband, Semler continued to look for the bear.

"I was scared," she said. "I knew I needed to keep an eye on where that bear was."

When officials arrived on the scene, they tracked the bear, which was pacing around about 100 yards away from the attack site and killed it.

Cenci said the events surrounding the attack remain unclear, as officials have not had a chance to interview Chelminiak. Cenci said Fish and Wildlife doesn't believe the attack occurred because Chelminiak or his dogs provoked the bear. The bear exhibited very strange behavior following the attack.

"I don't see this as the bear being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or dogs in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "I think this bear's behavior was out of the norm, and I don't think these folks did anything to cause the attack."

Typically, Cenci said, the bear would flee the area following any sort of confrontation. Based on its irregular behavior, it was determined that the bear would likely attempt to attack someone else, he said.

When officials examined the bear, it became clear that it was underweight for the beginning of the long winter season, a time when bears consume extra food to build layers of fat for warmth. It had worn teeth and was missing a canine tooth as well. The bear had bird seed in the contents of its stomach, Cenci said, so it may have been desperate for food.

"This bear very well could have seen this individual as prey," he said. "When black bears attack people that's generally the case; they see people as prey."

The injured council member was taken to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee before later being airlifted to Harborview to receive access to superior reconstructive surgeons.

Chelminiak was first elected to the Bellevue City Council in November 2003 and served as deputy mayor for two years until 2007. He served as chief of staff for both the King and Snohomish county councils, and worked as a reporter and manager at KIRO-AM radio.

Cenci said Monday bears are no strangers to the area around the Chelminiak vacation home. But, attacks have not been a problem.

Semler said she and her husband have owned the vacation home for six years and never encountered a bear.

"We had not personally seen bears anywhere near the cabin," she said. "There are bears that come and knock down garbage cans. They come and go, but nothing of this nature."

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