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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU WATCH
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.