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Bellevue councilman fought for his life against black bear; survival called 'a miracle'

Bellevue City Council member John Chelminiak describes the injuries to his back and arm when he was mauled by a black bear last month.  At the press conference was at left, Dr. Matthew Klein, his plastic surgeon and his wife, Lynn Semler.  Chelminiak is talking for the first time while still under treatment at Harborview Hospital in Seattle on Wednesday.  - Steve Ringman, Seattle Times
Bellevue City Council member John Chelminiak describes the injuries to his back and arm when he was mauled by a black bear last month. At the press conference was at left, Dr. Matthew Klein, his plastic surgeon and his wife, Lynn Semler. Chelminiak is talking for the first time while still under treatment at Harborview Hospital in Seattle on Wednesday.
— image credit: Steve Ringman, Seattle Times

Editor's Note: Coverage of John Chelminiak's press conference was limited to a pool of reporters, including the Seattle Times, KOMO-TV and KIRO radio.

By Nicole Tsong

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

John Chelminiak was fumbling with his headlamp on Lakeshore Drive in Wenatchee when he heard the scratch of nails on the road and the whoosh of a large animal’s exhale. Within seconds, a black bear was on top of him.

All he could think was he needed to keep the clawing, biting bear behind him, and he needed to stay upright.

Or else he would die.

On Wednesday, in his first interview since the attack, he recounted the sickening crunch of teeth when the bear bit him in the head, the flash of light when the bear struck his left eye, and how he fought back, kneeing the bear as it lunged at his abdomen.

“It was just a horrendous fight,” Chelminiak said at Harborview Medical Center, where he has been since the Sept. 17 mauling.

Dr. Matthew Klein, a University of Washington Medicine plastic surgeon at Harborview, said when Chelminiak arrived at the hospital, he had deep lacerations to his face, with pieces of flesh and scalp hanging off his head. Chelminiak also suffered a cut on his neck so deep it reached his spine. He also had wounds to his abdomen, lower body and his face. His left eye was so damaged it had to be removed.

“It is a miracle,” Klein said. “We’re very proud of his progress.”

Chelminiak, a Bellevue City Council member, has had five surgeries since the attack, and doctors say he will likely need two or three more, but he could be headed home as early as next week.

“Physically, I feel really good,” Chelminiak said Wednesday. “I feel very, very strong.”

Chelminiak credited his wife, Lynn Semler, with saving his life. During the attack, Semler, who was in the house with their 11-year-old, Megan, heard noise outside. She grabbed a flashlight from her car in the garage and ran outside, activating the motion-sensor outdoor lights that scared the bear away, wildlife officials said.

All Chelminiak knew was that at some point, the bear stopped attacking.

Chelminiak then collapsed on the gravel driveway. He couldn’t see anything. He was soaked in blood.

He told his wife to go inside, but Semler didn’t. She said Wednesday all she knew was she wanted to keep an eye on the bear and kept her flashlight trained on the bear, pacing the road in front of their house.

Their daughter called 911, and an ambulance took Chelminiak to Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee. From there, he was airlifted to Harborview in Seattle.

Chelminiak, who wore hospital scrubs, stitches crisscrossing his face, was cheerful and articulate when he spoke to media on Wednesday. He said he is eager to go home and get back to work.

In the meantime, he added, he needs to get a T-shirt that says, “I won.”

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

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