Exclusive: Arizona man survives savage bear attack, shares story of survival
A FOX 10 EXCLUSIVE -- WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar award this year for his role in "The Revanant" in large part to the frightening, violent scene where his character is mauled by a bear. The attack is a central part of the film and really difficult to watch.
That was just Hollywood -- not real. A man was attacked by a real bear while camping in Arizona and there was no Oscar handed out for surviving that ordeal. Now he's sharing his story with FOX 10.
Cool mountain air and stunning scenery -- the incredible beauty of Arizona's Tonto National Forest is every camper's dream.
"I was amazed at how many trees, how tall they were.. how fresh the air was. Just the scent of everything," said Peter Baca.
A perfect spot for Baca to take the first camping trip of his life.
"As a Father's Day gift and around the time of my son's first birthday, we combined the celebration and said, let's go camping, so that's basically how I found myself out there," he said.
So in a combination celebration, Baca, his girlfriend and baby boy Gabriel set off for the woods. It was so different from Tempe where he lives and southern California, where he grew up.
"It would be cool to be in the woods, check out some trees, some squirrels and might get bored. I'm a city boy," he said.
In late June 2012, they arrived at the Ponderosa Campground near Payson. They set up their tent, but what they and dozens of other campers didn't know was the night before, just 1.5 miles away, a man sleeping in a cabin was mauled by a bear. And they certainly didn't know that in the campsite three weeks earlier, perhaps that same bear attacked a woman sleeping in her tent.
Two bear attacks on sleeping victims. The third victim was just hours away.
Baca says he was unaware about those previous attacks before embarking on the camping trip.
"We were relying on the authorities and nobody had mentioned anything about previous attacks."
As night fell under the starry skies, they settled in for the night in their tent below the towering pines, about to get a shocking wake up call.
"I see a dark figure at first, but I know I feel pain.. but then I look down at my arm and I see some sunlight coming through from the early morning.. basically mangled flesh hanging from my arm.. and it seemed very surreal at first," explained Baca. "A black bear poking through a mesh window in our tent took a large chunk of my forearm.. it was tearing at my arm. It seemed to go in slow motion. We were on the ground struggling. It's kind of like playing tug of war with your arm and a bear."
This wasn't a dream. It was real and the bear was winning.
A black bear -- the only bear found naturally in Arizona and the smallest at 200 pounds, but it can weigh up to 500 pounds. Their razor sharp claws make them excellent tree climbers.
In 2012, Arizona's drought, combined with several wildfires, pushed some bears from their usual stomping grounds into campgrounds and at least one bear was showing a lot of incredible aggression towards people.
"It's kind of like I'm gonna wake up any second, but didn't. As it's tearing and the tent is collapsing, my son is right next to me and he just turned one. So I'm yelling it's a bear, wake up, get the baby, run.. luckily, she found a hole from it swiping and mauling, trying to get at me," added Baca. "I stayed with it and it got more up my arm and tearing out my muscle here. I started to feel claws tearing along here and there and there's even bites as I'm trying to fight it. I could see fang marks and scratches because I'm trying to use this arm 'cause this one is out of commission and mangled."
A huge chunk of his arm was gone.
"As soon as I had the initial bite, I felt no pain. It was all shock. I was screaming out for help, but feeling very tired right away. I was losing a lot of blood. It stood up and I stood up with it.. and its jaws.. it was biting down and tearing at my scalp. Once it got to my scalp and started ripping up, I was covered and it hit me so viciously, I tell people it was like going 15 rounds with a heavy weight. I was swollen, so swollen you couldn't recognize me. My eyes were swollen. I had mangled flesh hanging about parts of my body. I could barely even see."
Blood in his eyes and one of his ears was nearly ripped off.
"It was definitely trying to kill me. It felt like an eternity, but it probably was five to 10 minutes."
The nightmare came to an end when shots were fired.
"Somebody there had a firearm. A small caliber .22 and it wouldn't do much to harm a black bear, but it was enough to probably save my life," said Baca. "Other campers were throwing items, making noise, doing whatever they could."
They distracted the bear.
"Once they got its attention, it released me from its grasp. Then I tried to find my way out of a tent that was collapsed around me. And when I did try to run, but was so out of breath, losing so much blood.. had no strength. I lost a lot of blood. It was very close. I could feel it was close. I didn't have the strength to take a breath in and catch my breath. I got to the truck, I tried to open it. I barely had strength to open it.. I couldn't run or move from there and I had nothing left and if it wasn't for the couple that came along to put an IV and fluids in me, I may not be here."
Some other campers had an advanced first aid kit.
"He had a kit with him.. he knew how to put an IV in," said Baca.
Then he waited 30 minutes for a helicopter to arrive at the scene.
"I remember being under the blades of the helicopters. The paramedics started coming.. cut my clothes off. I remember being very, very cold and I thought it was because they cut my clothes off, but it was because I lost so much blood."
Based on the horrified looks on the faces of everyone who saw him, Baca knew his injuries were bad. A massive chunk of his left arm was gone. Claw marks sliced across his back and side, bite marks on his head and face, an ear that needed to be reattached.
"Initially, it was hard because I'd wake up in the hospital still trying to fight it."
At one point, he woke up filled with worry about his son.
"I had a tube going down my throat and I couldn't talk, but I could feel my mother holding my hand."
He shudders to think about what could have happened."
"I saw plenty of other children, babies, teenagers.. children of all ages. From a father's standpoint, I feel it was lucky it wasn't my son. I do feel better it was me other than a child."
Last year, Baca gave the scars on his body some company: a bear tattoo. It's a conversation starter -- a reminder of his epic battle.
"Facing a situation to where you don't know how you'd act when your loved ones are in trouble and you're the only line of defense and on that day, there was just no way that bear was going to get my son," he said. "It's something I'm proud of because I did survive it.. don't know how... with a lot of help."
Baca is just starting to deal with the emotional scars of that bear attack.
Three bears were tracked down shortly after he was attacked. DNA testing from the bears' claws, teeth and stomach showed those bears were not involved in the attack.
The bear that attacked him may have been hit with a bullet by the other camper, scurried off and died or it may still be out in the Tonto National Forest.
If you have a tough stomach and want to see the photos of Baca's post-attack injuries, we've posted the unaltered images online: fox10phoenix.com/news/136866488-gallery