KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – An 8-year-old Florida boy had just scrambled up a creek embankment ahead of his father and older brother during a day hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he confronted an 86-pound male black bear.
"The bear was staring at me," Evan Pala of Boca Raton said in an interview Tuesday. "Then he just stood up (on his hind legs) and jumped on me. Before he even got me I called, 'Bear!"'
The bear mauled Evan on Monday evening, grabbing the boy with his mouth and tossing him about like a rag doll in only the eighth bear attack on a visitor to the Great Smokies in the past decade.
John Pala, a 43-year-old health insurance salesman with no backwoods experience, twice pulled the bear off his son before he and Evan's 10-year-old brother Alex pummeled it with rocks and sticks, then ran for safety.
Park rangers caught a young bear soon afterward in the same area and killed it when it charged them. Smokies spokeswoman Nancy Gray said rangers were sure it was the same bear.
Evan and his father, who received minor cuts on his right hand and bruises on his feet when he lost his shoes in the melee, were released from a local hospital early Tuesday.
"To see my little brother bleeding ... was scary. I should have seen that big bear coming," Alex said.
Park officials said the attack along the popular Rainbow Falls trail was unprovoked. In most cases, bears attack people while trying to poach their food, but none was present during the attack Monday. John Pala said their clothes might have smelled like fried chicken from a meal an hour earlier.
Evan had scampered ahead of his dad and brother when John heard the scream and raced ahead. The bear already was on top of the boy. John said he grabbed the bear's face and pulled its mouth apart, pushing it away from his son.
Evan tried to run away and fell. The bear again pounced on the boy, and his father again pulled the bear off. As Evan fled, John Pala and Alex threw sticks and stones at the animal. The bear didn't move.
"He was mad because he didn't get what he wanted. He was going to make his stand," John Pala said.
So John and Alex slowly backed away. When they were about 20 feet from the bear, "we hightailed it out of there" and a few minutes later reached Evan at the parking lot where they left their car.
The bear was taken to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center for a necropsy to determine if it was ill or had rabies, which has never been found before in a Smokies bear. The bear had no history of problem behavior.
The Smokies, a 520,000-acre preserve straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, has about 1,600 bears and draws more than 9 million visitors annually. One bear attack in the park's history was fatal.
"This is so rare," said Lynn Rogers, director of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn. "I don't know if you would call a bear like that a demented bear, like some people, or a super bear that decides, 'Hey, I can take a person."'
Gray said bears have been active this year, with several wandering into urban areas. Yet there have been fewer cases of "nuisance" bears, and none has required capture and relocation this year.
The North American Bear Center lists 61 people killed by black bears in North America since 1900, with 46 of those in Alaska or Canada.
But there have been two fatal attacks in eastern Tennessee: A Tennessee school teacher was killed in 2000 by a female bear and cub during a day hike in the Great Smokies and an Ohio family was attacked in 2006 in bordering Cherokee National Forest, killing a 6-year-old girl and injuring her 2-year-old brother and mother.