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On morning of 25 July, 2018, Bridger Petrini was keeping his dogs in shape for the upcoming bear season in New Mexico, near the Colorado border.
Petrini purchased his professional guide service eight years ago, from his father, who started it in 1985. The bear season would open in less than three weeks, and the dogs had to be in shape for it. He had made some important appointments in Raton, the nearest town, for the afternoon.
He was within a quarter mile of the house, when the dogs unexpectedly found a bear and took off. He and the dogs were so close to the house, his 10 year old son and 13 year old daughter saw and heard the dogs and bear run by.
Bridger’s 10 year old son called and asked if he could come with his father to get the dogs. Bridger told him to run the quarter mile to where Bridger was at. They started after the dogs and bear in a Kawasaki Mule.
A little later, his wife Janelle called. Bridger’s sister was visiting. She had never seen a bear in the wild. His wife suggested he come back and pick his sister up. Bridger told her he could not do so. He had to get the dogs off the bear and back to the house, so he could make his appointments.
He said they could follow in his Toyota Tacoma hunting rig and catch up, and they might be able to see the bear. Bridger’s sister, his wife Janelle, the Petrini’s 13 year old daughter, and their other two small children piled into the pickup and started after Bridger, his son, the dogs and the bear.
The mesa is not very large. The temperature, even at 6500 feet, was in the upper 80’s. The bear and dogs heated up and slowed down quickly. They were fighting on a little bench, right under the rimrock. It was strewn with refrigerator sized boulders, with some cedar trees, good sized for the area, but too small for a bear to climb.
Complacency is the enemy of everyone who works in dangerous situations. People do things hundreds of times. They start taking shortcuts. Bridger normally carries a Glock 20 in a Galco holster, when he is hunting bears with clients.
This morning, he is not hunting bears. He has no desire to shoot this bear. There is no client with him. He has to get the dogs off the bear so he can make his appointments in town. He has taken dogs off of bears and mountain lions hundreds of times before.
His wife and family have caught up with him. He tells Janelle to park the vehicles in a little draw, while he goes up and calls off the dogs. He has been doing this for 19 years.
As an after thought, he takes the Glock 20 10mm semi-automatic pistol from his vehicle and shoves it in his waist band behind his cowboy belt. It is loaded with 175 grain Hornady Critical Duty FlexLock loads. The magazine only has 10-12 rounds in it. A few months earlier, he had heard the theory of “spring set”. He decided not to keep the magazine fully loaded.
The dogs and bear are, by the sound, a hundred and fifty yards away. As he leaves the vehicles, his 13 year old daughter starts to follow him, but is called back by her mother.
When hunting bears, hunters are worried about the wind, and the bear seeing them. In Bridger’s extensive experience, when a bear sees or smells a human, they run off. Bridger expects this bear to run.
Bridger moves in toward the bear and the dogs. The boulders make it easier to hop from one boulder to the next, instead of trying to navigate between them. Bridger hops to another boulder, and moves around a cedar. He sees the bear and the dogs. The bear is a big boar, nearly 400 lbs, the cinnamon color phase of the black bear. It is extremely close, less than 20 feet.
Bridger’s first thought is to get video. It is an incredible image. Big cinnamon bears are not common. The bear will run at any moment, once he sees or smells the man. Bridger grabs his phone.
This bear never read the rulebook. It does not run. The bear sees Bridger, turns toward him, and flattens its ears back along its head. Its eyes have locked on Bridger. Bridger has watched hundreds of bears in similar situations. He knows he has been targeted. He drops the phone and snatches the Glock from his belt.
A lot is happening very fast, but for Bridger, everything is slowing down as he goes into tachypsychia. Tachypsychia is a common occurrence in high stress life or death situations. The mind speeds up, and events appear to be happening in slow motion. In reality, the person is acting faster than they ever have before.
The bear is coming for him. He elects not to aim for the head. He does not want to hit one of his dogs. He triggers two or three shots aimed at the bears body. The bear starts to spin, snapping at the wounds. The bear is six feet away.
Bridger decides to retreat. He cannot boulder hop backward. He turns and hops to the next boulder, then the next. He is mid air to the third when he sees dogs moving past him. In his fast mind state, he realizes this is bad. As he lands and turns, the big Glock in his hand, he sees the boar coming at him like an over-sized NFL linebacker with claws and big, pointy teeth. Before he can fire again, the bear hits him. They go over the edge of the shelf together, tumbling down a steep, rocky slope in mortal combat.
Bridger does not remember shooting during the fall. His family found shell casings down the trail of broken tree limbs and brush. He knew the Glock was his lifeline. His right hand is skinned and bruised. He holds on with a death defying grip.
Bear and man stop downslope, wedged into brush and boulders. Bridger can feel the bear. He frantically attempts to disentangle. The bear rears erect, jaws ready to strike. Bridger shoots him again, in the front of his chest. Bridger slides/falls further down the slope. The bear pursues him. He screams at Janelle to stay away.
He is trying to kick the bear away from him. The bear is trying to get at Bridger’s upper body. Bridger cannot shoot for fear of hitting his own legs. The bear dodges a kick, and grabs Bridger’s right inner thigh in his jaws, lifting him like a dog lifting a rabbit. Bridger shoves the muzzle of the Glock against the bears neck, trying to shatter its spine and shut the bear down.
He fires. The bear releases his lower thigh, then grabs his calf, just below the knee. The shot missed the spine. Man and bear are moving fast, but in Bridger’s hyper aware state, time is slowed. He sees an opportunity for a headshot. He presses the trigger on the Glock.
Later, Bridger found bear hair between the guide rod and the slide of his Glock 20 pistol. The hair prevented the slide from locking all the way forward. With the slide out of battery, the firing pin could not strike the primer to discharge the cartridge.
Bridger knows he should have ammunition left in the magazine. He racks the slide on the Glock and sees a live round eject in slow motion.
Fractions of a second later, another opportunity for a head shot presents itself. The bear rips at his leg. Both Bridgers legs are under the bear’s head. As the bear tries to tear off his calf muscle, Bridger sees his chance. He presses the trigger.
Man and bear go down together, roll and slide a bit down the slope.
The bear is dead. It is just before noon.
Bridger is lying head downwards on a steep rocky slope, on his belly. The bear is upslope of him, bunched up. It is nearly 400 lbs of flesh, claws and fur, with its teeth locked onto Bridger’s right calf muscle. Its head is twisted behind his knee.
He is trapped, wedged on the slope between boulders and brush. Attempts at movement bring excruciating pain that almost, but not quite, render him unconscious. He can reach back and feel the bear’s jaws and teeth, and something slimy inside the jaws. That would be his calf muscle. He cannot release his leg from the bear’s jaws, or shift his position.
Janelle has heard the shots and his screams. She knows something is very wrong. Their 13 year old daughter started to run to rescue daddy, and her mother had to stop her. All four children are with her.
Janelle shouts “Where’s the bear!?”
“Its dead!” Bridger yells. From pistol draw to the last shot, it was less than 20 seconds.
Janelle and the 13 year old come up the slope from the vehicles. They cannot unlock the bear’s jaws from his leg. The slope, brush, rocks and 400 lb body of the bear render it impossible. The muscle of Bridger’s calf has been twisted, locking muscle, teeth, and jaws together. Janelle calls emergency responders, brother-in-law Brad, and friends.
Devout Christians, the family is praying as they attempt to disentangle man and bear.
Help arrives in about 20 minutes, according to Janelle.
Five strong men cannot unlock the bear from Bridger’s leg. It is a combination of position, slope, gravity, leverage, and the wedge effect of boulders and brush.
Bridger’s brother-in-law, Brad, cut the Gordian knot.
He used Bridger’s pocket knife, a Benchmade mini-Griptilian, to cut off the bears head. He cut down to the bone. One of the game wardens responding had a folding saw. They cut through the spinal column. The men manage to separate the bear’s head from the bear’s body and from Bridger’s calf. His calf muscle had started turning gray.
The previous January, a helicopter had crashed near where the bear fight occurred. Bridger was the first on the scene. Two victims had died in his arms. Only one of the six in the crash survived. Bridger saw things he told me a man should never see. Bridger vowed never to ride in a helicopter.
As he heard the rescue helicopter come in, Bridger started saying “I am not going on that thing!” The helicopter landed. Shock was setting in. Bridger started convulsing. Bridger told one of the flight paramedics from the helicopter, a lovely young woman, that he could not ride in that machine.
She hooked up an intravenous drip as they transferred him from the mountain litter to the gurney from the helicopter. “Let me help you get more comfortable.”, She said. She reached across and fastened the chest strap, leaned over, lips close to his ear, and said: “Honey, you don’t have a choice.”
The morphine and shock medication started to hit. The world changed, and Bridger said, “Lets go!”
The original plan was for the helicopter to fly to Denver. A storm was in the way. They rerouted to Albuquerque, skirting storms, with quite a bit of turbulence. It was fortuitous. Albuquerque has one of the top trauma centers in the Southwest, and experience with animal attacks.
Bridger spent four hours in surgery and received over 200 stitches.
Normally, Bridger would be out with clients and dogs on the opening day of bear season in New Mexico. In 2018, he is laid up in bed, when he is not undergoing painful physical therapy.
He is alive, and looking at heavier, deep penetrating bullets, in 10mm cartridges designed for bear defense, to carry in his Glock.
With luck, Bridger, his family, and his business will be serving hunters for decades to come.