published Friday, December 4th, 2009

Story of bear attack to air

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    Contributed Photo Bear attack survivor Susan Cenkus will share her story on Animal Planet’s "I’m Alive" on Friday, Dec. 4. Mrs. Cenkus, of Clyde, Ohio, and two of her children were attacked in April 2006 at the Cherokee National Forest in Polk County. Her daughter, Elora Petrosek, died, but her son, Luke, survived.

By Tammie Goins


When a 200-pound black bear grabbed her 2-year-old son in the Cherokee National Forest, Susan Cenkus launched herself at the animal and nearly lost her life.

The bear tore at her neck, tossed her aside and grabbed her daughter, Elora Petrosek, 6. The little girl didn't survive the shattering attack, and Mrs. Cenkus and her son Luke carry permanent scars.

Now the world will have a chance to hear the chilling tale of how Mrs. Cenkus risked her life to save her children in the 2006 attack on the Animal Planet show "I'm Alive" tonight at 9 and 11 p.m.

Mrs. Cenkus and her children were hiking near the Chilhowee Campground near Benton Falls on April 13, 2006, when the bear attacked Luke, then 2.

She screamed for help and tried to fight off the animal, which turned on her, then Elora.

Help came quickly and Mrs. Cenkus and Luke were rushed to the hospital in Chattanooga.

Erlanger trauma surgeon Vicente Mejia treated Mrs. Cenkus about two hours after the attack. She was conscious but had deep punctures and crush wounds on her neck from the bear's teeth, which had severed her vertebral arteries, he said.

"When these bears attack, they often go to the neck to get the airways and paralyze the victim," he said. Doctors tied closed the arteries to stop the bleeding, because a repair was impossible, Dr. Mejia said.

With extensive soft-tissue injuries to her arms and legs, she lay in a drug-induced coma for nine days while Erlanger doctors performed seven surgeries to save her life.

Luke underwent surgery for significant puncture wounds to his skull, but healed quickly and was released from T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital after a week.

Elora's death was only the second fatal attack by a black bear in Tennessee. The other was in 2000 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The family had come from York Township, Ohio, to see Mrs. Cenkus' oldest son, Christopher Dennison, 23, perform in a recital at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn.

Mrs. Cenkus, who attended Lee in the 1980s, had camped at and hiked Chilhowee Mountain many times in the past, but had never seen a bear.

According to Cherokee National Forest authorities, the bear responsible for the attack was captured a few days after the incident. DNA samples from the 200-pound bear's front claws linked it to the attack. The bear was euthanized.

Experts concluded the attack was unprovoked and predatory, given that it happened in the spring when bears emerge from hibernation and food sources are scarce.

Mrs. Cenkus made the difficult journey back to Chilhowee Mountain in 2008 where Elora, whose name means "God is my light," lost her life.

She has returned to Tennessee several times to thank paramedics and other emergency workers for risking their lives to help families like hers.

In published reports, she said her faith has made the path easier to walk and credits God for her strength to carry on and help others.

Staff writer Emily Bregel contributed to this report.

Tammie Goins is based in Bradley County. Contact her at


Susan Cenkus will tell the story a 2006 bear attack in the Cherokee National Forest on the Animal Planet show "I'm Alive" today at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. today.

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rolando said...

What a crushing sympathy goes out to the family.

If only she or someone in the campground had had a gun handy.

Do NOT go in our woods, trails, parks unarmed. Bears are not the only predators waiting there for a victim.

December 4, 2009 at 12:17 p.m.
quietreader said...

Rolando I'm with you. Unfortunately it's illegal to carry in the parks (Or at least it was when I took my training). However, we never go unarmed. I've wondered if the mother survived. I'd heard that she might not make it. Thank God she did.

December 4, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.
x1froggie said...

I watched the show last night with my husband. I was horrified. We have a 6 year old daughter and a 2 year old son. I cried and prayed for Susan. What a brave mother! We're a little confused why in not one of the articles we looked up does it talk about the couple that was at the river during the attack (according to the show). This couple had kids with them too and the man was the one that carried Luke away (according to the show). My husband protested, 'WHY didn't the other woman take all the kids, including Elora, to safety and call 911? And WHY did the man stay and throw rocks at the bear?' It made us angry that Elora was left behind, when Susan laid there thinking she had saved both her little ones. As a mother of two, I'm sad the other mother didn't get all the children to safety. As a father of two, my husband was upset that the man didn't do more....

December 5, 2009 at 2:04 p.m.
x1froggie said...

I'm sorry, I meant why DIDN'T the man stay and throw rocks at the bear.....

December 5, 2009 at 2:18 p.m.
Exusiai said...

If my recolection of the Cherokee National Forest is correct, there is no cell phone signal, due to the Cherokee Nation not allowing cell towers to be built on their land

December 5, 2009 at 3:11 p.m.
x1froggie said...

I don't know if that's true, because they did end up notifying 911 and the park rangers quickly, according to the show and several articles. But that wasn't the point I was making. It just didn't take both of them to get help. The man should've stayed to help Susan and Elora.

December 5, 2009 at 5:16 p.m.
Exusiai said...

May have changed since I last heard. LAst I eard companies were attempting to convince the Council to allow them to place towers in the forest.

My information could be outdated.

December 7, 2009 at 8:12 a.m.
brina2784 said...

Did anyone figure out what happened to the other family that was there? It doesn't say anything about them and the reason they didn't get her children in the papers. She also doesn't mention them again in the show...How could they have gotten their children out and not been able to grab the other two children?! It makes me so mad! What were they thinking?

December 13, 2009 at 11:54 p.m.
leslieas1 said...

Especially since she paused to help the other couples child who had stumbled. What man would run away while a child was left in danger. That poor girl must have been horrified to watch her mother and brother being attacked and then the unimaginable pain and fear she encountered as she was left to fend off a two hundred pound bear by herself.

January 8, 2010 at 10:09 p.m.
dhfox9 said...

I echo the other posters' alarm. The show led viewers to believe that the other mother ushered out her kids and Elora while the Dad carried the toddler with him. What really happened with Susan's two kids? The bear, according to the show, was found with Elora's body away from the swimming hole where Mom and toddler were attacked. How/why was Elora left to fend for herself? And was the toddler really carried away by the man or was he left behind?

January 10, 2010 at 1:16 a.m.
jeremypolk said...

I just watched this show on animal planet and now I'm at a loss for an expanation. I got online to look for an answer about why the other family didn't save the girl. It makes me angry to think that they could just leave the little girl to die. If anyone finds any information on this, please post it.

March 20, 2010 at 12:53 a.m.
jeremypolk said...

And why didnt the guy do anything??? The whole thing may have been prevented if they would've stood up to the bear and tried to scare it away.

March 20, 2010 at 1 a.m.
llmomof2 said...

From what I have read and heard from local news it sounds like the mother and another family did try to help. When the bear began approaching everyone started moving away from the area, except for these 2 children. When they all were leaving the scene the 2 year old boy went back! Causing the mother to rescue him and nearly lose her life. The little girl, according to reports and witnesses, got scared and ran away, despite efforts to get her out. Parents please, please, please teach your children to obey what you tell them to do, even in scary situations!!!! Their lives could one day depend upon it!! I see children in public all the time who are so disrespectful and they are not taught to obey their parents or any other authority!! It is so sad. And I always think, when I see children acting like that, if that child is ever in a life or death situation they will not suddenly learn to listen to mom when she calls out warnings and tells them to get away or come here. So very sad. And such a beautiful little girl.

March 15, 2011 at 9:42 a.m.
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