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'Lake Baikal, where the ice queen cast her spell'
Mike Carter, The Observer, 2009

'The bear licked blood from my neck and gnawed my legs'

01 July 2015

Shocking but inspiring account of heroic woman who survived after bear overpowered her, then buried her alive as its dinner.

The former baker had been in the forest to collect birch sap with her friend, when the hungry bear suddenly circled them, and pounced. Picture: Igor Ageenko

Sitting up in her hospital bed in Blagoveshchensk seven weeks after the ferocious attack by a female bear, Natalya Pasternak, 54, recalls the moment on 11 May that she knew her life would end. 

The former baker had been in the forest to collect birch sap with her friend, 82 year old Valentina (Valia) Mikhailovna Gorodetskaya, when the hungry bear suddenly circled them, and pounced. 

The two women had been coming to this spot near Tynda in the Amur region of eastern Russia for years, going back to when her children were young, with no hint of danger. 

'I'd just phoned my daughter Ekaterina to say I was almost finished and coming home when my dog Gerta pricked up her ears and started barking - howling - in a way I had never heard before,' she says. 

'All of a sudden I saw a bear coming at me. I turned and ran. I'd gone for maybe 50 metres and then realised babushka Valia had hearing problems and was all alone there.

'It would have been certain death for her. I stopped, wanting to go back and help her. Later this was the place where I was found in such a bad way.

'At the time, I looked back and saw my dog and the bear keeping its distance: she was barking at it, and it wasn't attacking. I think if I'd fled then, I would have had a chance to escape. 

'But I started screaming: 'Mikhailovna, get away, there's a bear! Run!' Then I remembered she most probably wouldn't hear me. She has hearing problems.

'Next my dog started coming towards me, perhaps because I was screaming, and the bear came too. So the distance between the bear and myself suddenly got smaller. Soon, the dog and bear were close to me.'

Natalia Pasternak


Natalia Pasternak

Sitting up in her hospital bed in Blagoveshchensk seven weeks after the ferocious attack by a female bear, Natalya Pasternak, 54, recalls the moment on 11 May that she knew her life would end. Pictures: Igor Ageenko

For a moment the bears seemed uncertain whether to attack mother of three Natalia or her dog. She froze with fear, sensing what was coming. 

'The bear started lunging at me, biting at my legs.'

Natalia was convinced she wouldn't survive. 'My first thought was: 'This is it, my death'. Who could save us here? It was eating me alive and I fought back as much as I could

'I grabbed a small drill that we used to get the sap and another thought hit me: 'Right, now I hit it and it will get so angry and bite through my carotid artery, then I'll just bleed to death. I won't suffer'. 

'I remember thinking: 'I don't want end up disabled and a burden for my children'.

The bear had been on all fours, but now backed away, and then reared up onto its hind legs before 'running at me and biting my legs'. Natalia recalls:  'I tried to hit her on the eye with the drill, but the beast fell on me and bit through my arm. Today, I can hardly move it. 

'Then she bit my neck. At that moment I started screaming out loud 'God, help!' I prayed as I was being pummelled by the bear.

'In my head flashed the thought that this was my end and I'd not been to church to confess. 

'Just then, [Valentina] Mikhailovna ran to me - she's very religious. And she started fighting for me, attacking the bear with her hands and praying, all at the same time. 

Natalia Pasternak

Natalia had wounds that would have killed many people, but somehow was clinging to life, buried in the bear's larder. Picture: Igor Ageenko

'The bear switched to her but not for too long and then again got back to me and started dragging me towards the forest. Desperately, I grabbed bushes with my other arm so that the bear couldn't pull me away.

'Then she started covering me with mud, twigs and leaves. I was her lunch. I was thinking 'Will she call his bear buddies to come eat me?'

Then it went quiet. The bear prowled around, perhaps looking for Valentina, but she had escaped, to summon help to rescue Natalia. 

'I felt relieved, warm and quiet. The attacks had stopped, at least for some time. 

Natalia had wounds that would have killed many people, but somehow was clinging to life, buried in the bear's larder.

'But the pause didn't last long.' Or so she thought. In fact, it was an hour and a half before help came, and she lay bleeding, in shock and pain, at the creature's mercy.  

'The bear came again and now it was licking blood from my neck and gnawing my legs. I tried to cover my legs but the bear bit through my arm instead. The pain was terrible. But then I heard shots.'

Two hunters were on the scene, and they had saved her life. Weakly and frightened, she asked: 'Did you kill the bear?' Then she said, 'Dig me out'.

Natalia's is a story of great bravery, because she could have escaped but was so concerned about her friend that she stopped in her tracks and shouted to warn her. 

'I was conscious until the very end, until finally they drugged me in the hospital,' she says. 'I remember they asked me 'Are you alive?' and I managed a little wave to say 'yes, I am'. 

Natalia Pasternak

Ekaterina, 20, one of Natalia's three adult children, says: 'Doctors say that they didn't expect her to recover so quickly.' Picture: Igor Ageenko

'At the scene, doctors came and carefully stretchered me through the forest. At the hospital, they put me in surgery room and I remember they uncovered me. I heard a voice saying: 'Oh God! She's bitten and clawed all over.'

At the time, quivering from shock, she had no idea how extensively she had been mauled by the predator. 

Her gory wounds were devastating, and also, visible to the world because images of her on the operating table in the hospital were leaked - within hours - on the internet. 

'I was all covered with blood, leaves and mud,' she says. 'I remember they asked  about my weight to know how much to drug me. '80 kilos?',  '76?'. Then I switched off at last.'

In the hours that followed, it was touch and go whether she would survive. The first bulletins on her condition were pessimistic. 

As she sits in bed today recovering, and is occasionally taken by her daughter outside into the summer sun, Natalia is coming to grips with the extent of her injuries, which, bad as they are, will not stop her living a full life, say doctors. 

Natalia's ear was damaged, her scalp and neck wounded, groin injuries, as well as arm and leg lacerations. She went through surgery transplanting skin from her calves onto her hips and head. 

Her daughter Ekaterina, a trainee obstetrician, had been due to go with her on the day she was attacked. 'Somehow she didn't come, and I shudder to think that she might have been attacked like me,' she says. 

Natalia Pasternak


Natalia Pasternak

'I am alive and this is the most important thing. I don't have enough words to describe how grateful I am to the doctors and hunters.' Pictures: Natalya Pasternak

Sergey Ivanov, the hunter who shot dead the bear, and saved Natalia said the creature was a four year old female weighing 100 kg and some 170 cm tall. 

'I left the building where I work and got an urgent phone call from the police. They said that a bear attacked people who were walking in the forest. I grabbed my gun and rushed to the place, where we saw a babushka (Valia).'

She had raised the alarm but was now too shocked to speak (though she was not badly wounded and has now fully recovered). 

'I walked 200-250m when my colleague yelled 'Here, on the right -  the bear was running to us.'

The animal was guarding its prey.

'I shot the gun 4 times. The bear fell, and I shot her once more in the head. We found the dog which was staying close to Natalia, and about five metres away saw her bleeding and covered with mud. We immediately called the ambulance and emergency service. It all took about half an hour.'

He said that bears were encroaching closer and closer to the town, which is 568 kilometres northwest of regional capital Blagoveshchensk, and known as the capital of Siberia's 'other' great railway, the Baikal-Amur Mainline. 

A week before the attack on Natalia a bear was shot in a residential district. And a week later a bear was digging into tombs and eating corpses. 

'Natalia was very lucky. In 2013 a bear killed and ate an Evenk man in a village,' says Mr Ivanov.

According to the statistics, there are 7,000 bears living in Amur region. Since 1997, nine people in Tynda district alone have been killed by bears. Huntsmen have killed 3 bears since the beginning of 2015. 

Place of attack


Woman attacked by bear

When rescuers and the police arrived, the bear was covering Natalya with leaves and soil before it was shot dead. Pictures: Tynda TV

Andrei Bregadze, senior medic at  Amur Central Clinical Hospital, says: 'Natalia is in a satisfactory state and, more importantly, she's alive and she will be able to walk again. In general, the rehabilitation is going well and we may well let her go home by the beginning of July. 

'Now she needs to recover and get strong, psychologically as well. Additionally, I think that she might need plastic surgery if she wants it, and can afford it. All the rest is fine.'

Natalia said: 'I'm feeling well now and they're helping me a lot in the hospital. I can now stand up and walk a little bit with the help of my daughter.'

Ekaterina, 20, one of Natalia's three adult children, says: 'Doctors say that they didn't expect her to recover so quickly. But there were problems. 

'Sepsis started immediately because of mud in her wounds. And then aseptic pneumonia. Luckily, the doctors found it out almost immediately. My mother had sand and dust in her bronchial tubes from her fight with the bear, said doctors. 

'Now she's having problems with her arm, we're worried it won't fully recover, but it is amazing how she has recovered.'

Natalia - who will wear a wig if she does not have plastic surgery - says: 'I am alive and this is the most important thing. I don't have enough words to describe how grateful I am to the doctors and hunters. Once am feeling well, I will definitely come by to thank them.'

On her social network she posted the message: 'How beautiful life is.'

As for her ten year old mongrel Gerta, she emerged unscathed from the incident and is now loyally waiting at home for Natalia's return from hospital.

Natalia's is a story of great bravery, because she could have escaped but was so concerned about her friend that she stopped in her tracks and shouted to warn her. Picture: Igor Ageenko

Natalia Pasternak

Comments (1)

De tout coeur, bon rétablissement Madame.
Have a good time with your family and friends.
Thanks to the hunters.
Jocelyne, FRANCE
05/07/2015 04:30
10
0
1

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