It’s not clear how Cooper ventured off the course, which takes runners up a steep mountain in Chugach State Park. But sometime after he disappeared, he made a panicked phone call to his brother, according to the Associated Press.
A bear was chasing him, he said.
Using a phone tracking app, the search party pinpointed Cooper’s location about a mile from the trailhead, the Dispatch News reported. When they got to the right spot, he lay motionless, a 250-pound black bear standing over him.
Authorities arrived shortly after and fired a single shot. It appeared only to wound the animal, which ran off and has not been seen since, according to the Dispatch News.
Cooper was pronounced dead on the scene Sunday afternoon, local media reported, and his body was airlifted out of the park. He was identified by police on Sunday evening.
Park rangers spent the day Monday scanning the area for the bear and were expected to continue their search on Tuesday.
The mauling of Cooper rattled the tightknit Anchorage community, which has not seen a deadly bear attack in more than two decades. The last fatal mauling happened in 1995, when two local runners were killed by a brown bear guarding a moose carcass.
The bear that killed Cooper was most likely displaying rare predatory behavior, not defending itself, Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh told the Associated Press.
“It’s very unusual,” Marsh said. “It’s sort of like someone being struck by lightning.”
Hundreds of runners and spectators from the area had gathered at the Bird Ridge trail on Sunday for the race, which has been held annually for 29 years.
It’s a challenging competition. Adult competitors run three miles and 3,400 vertical feet up the rocky mountainside. Juniors under 17 years old run 1.5 miles and 1,500 vertical feet before reaching the finish line, then head back down at their leisure. The race was profiled in 2011 by Runner’s World, which said it was part of “a series of hard-core mountain races” where runners encounter “gruelingly steep trails, bad weather and bears.”
The starting gun for the juniors race sounded at 10:11 a.m. sharp, according to the Dispatch News. Cooper hit the turnaround point for his age group about 40 minutes later, with eight other juniors trailing him. A trail “sweeper” was reportedly following the last runner in the group.
At some point during his descent back down the mountain, Cooper veered off the trail. He would have quickly found himself surrounded by thick woods, brush and jagged terrain, so it’s easy to imagine how he might have lost his way.
Around 12:30 p.m., he made the frantic call to his brother, who was also participating in the race, according to the Associated Press.
The brother immediately alerted Precosky, the race organizer, that Cooper was being pursued by the bear, according to the Dispatch News. Cooper’s mother also heard the distressing news. So they rounded up people to search for the teen.
Earlier in the day, runners had reported seeing bears near the trail, according to KTUU. Bear sightings are common in that part of Alaska, and runners know to be wary, Precosky said.
“I’ve been running in the mountains for 30 years,” he told KTUU. “People come down off the trail and say they’ve run into a bear. Sometimes that means nothing; other times, it’s really serious. Like this.”
John Weddleton, an Anchorage Assembly member who was watching the race, set out into the woods with the search party, which included local authorities.
“I ran up to cheer, came down, and thought, I might as well go back up,” he told KTUU. “All I knew was there was a boy missing, and missing in bear country.”
Weddleton broke from the main group and was trudging through the heavy brush when he heard a rustling sound he thought might be the teen.
As he moved closer, a black bear burst out of the thicket.
Weddleton shouted at the others to stay back.
“I’m backing up, yelling, ‘Whoa, bear! Whoa, bear!’ with my bear spray pointed at him,” he told KTVA. “That’s not a place you want to be.”
The animal charged within about 10 feet of Weddleton, then stopped and locked eyes with him.
At first, he said, he didn’t notice Cooper’s body lying on the ground nearby.
“And then I saw him,” Weddleton told KTUU. “No motion. He looked awful.”
Weddleton said he called 911 and waited on a ledge a safe distance from the animal until authorities arrived. Afterward, he went to a nearby parking lot, where he met Cooper’s mother.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to cry until I see his mom.’ And that’s what I did,” he told KTVA in a recorded interview, his voice quavering. “We shared some tears.”
Precosky was alerted to the scene by the text from a member of the search party, according to the Dispatch News.
“We got word that it didn’t look good when we got eyes on the bear,” he told KTUU.
“I think everyone is just terribly sickened by the whole episode,” he said. “Mountain runners are never safer than when they are in a race. How often do you have 300 people around you, making noise?”
Park rangers arrived and saw Cooper “pinned” by the bear, Matt Wedeking, operations manager for Alaska State Parks, told the Associated Press. The blast from their shotgun struck the bear in the face, scaring it away from the body but not killing it.
Authorities said could only send a team of six people to retrieve Cooper because the terrain on the mountain was so rugged. Tracking down the bear is now a top priority, they said.
“This young man didn’t do anything wrong,” Tom Crockett, a Chugach State Park ranger, told the Dispatch News. “He was just in the wrong place. You can’t predict which bear is going to be predatory.”
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