At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Laurie Cooksey was forced to make the ultimate quick decision to save her life: fight or flight.
Cooksey, 52, and three of her four children, all experienced hikers, were on an early-evening trek in Douthat State Park in Millboro, Virginia, when a 150-pound female black bear charged them, clawing and biting Cooksey’s entire body.
The family was coming down from a high peak on the mountain trail, the Tuscarora scenic overlook, where they took a selfie, when Cooksey and her son Ellis, 19, wandered ahead of Hannah, 16, and Blake, 22, out of sight.
Ellis was the first one to notice the bear, only 15 feet away from where he and his mother stood on the trail, standing on two legs and ready to charge.
“Ellis has always been deathly afraid of bears,” Cooksey tells PEOPLE. “We had joked beforehand that in case we spotted one, our signal would be ‘Hoot Hoot Hoot!’ Never in a million years did I actually think I would get attacked though.”
The bear charged, with “a look in its eye,” that Cooksey and her son say they won’t soon forget.
Running Away Didn’t Work
The mother and son tried to run away, but the bear cut them off, clawing Cooksey on the small of her back. The two realized that the bear had an advantage, and if they wanted to survive they would need to slide down the side of the forested mountain.
“If we were on flat ground, the bear would have had the upper hand,” Ellis, a civil engineering student at Virginia Tech, tells PEOPLE. “So we flung ourselves down the mountain. I thought we were going to die.”
They slid down the hill, but the bear pursued, cutting them off and biting Cooksey’s leg in the crease behind her knee, shaking it.
The mother of four kicked the bear and hit her with enough force that she slipped on wet foliage and rolled backwards – giving the mother and her son just enough time to make an escape on foot.
‘It Was Adrenaline’
“In that moment, I wasn’t scared. I was just so thankful it was me and not my daughter that was attacked,” she says. “I didn’t have a plan when it bit me. It was adrenaline, I punched the bear. My emotions were on a high. We went as fast as we could back to Blake and Hannah, screaming at them to run.”
“We heard my mom and brother crying ‘Help us! Help us!’ ” Blake, a recent graduate from the College of William and Mary, tells PEOPLE. “At first we thought she was pranking us, because we had made up a bear signal earlier that day as a joke. But then I saw the blood. Then I saw the bear.”
Blake, an avid fan of nature television programs, recalled that one should “get loud and get big,” when attacked by a black bear and so began jumping up and down, screaming and throwing sticks in the air to deter the animal.
The sow eventually walked away and the family of four ran for their lives, down the four-mile trail, to the park entrance.
“The fact she walked all that way with all of her wounds and scratches, my mom’s a trooper,” says Blake. “She’s the strongest person I know. If this had been anyone else, they would have died.”
Cooksey was rushed to the hospital for rabies and tetanus shots and received 14 stitches – the majority of her injuries were puncture marks and claw scratches.
Bear Attacks Are Unusual
Outreach director for the Virginia Department of Games and Inland Fisheries, Lee Walker, tells PEOPLE this situation is highly unusual in the state.
“We have over 17,000 bears in this state, and we struggle to find records of any recent bear attacks, we have no past case histories to compare this too,” he says. “Black bears rarely interact with humans. Usually the bear sees you first and is gone before you ever even see it.”
Jaime Sajecki, black bear project leader for the Virginia Department of Games and Inland Fisheries says the bear, who was dispatched five hours after the incident was reported, was the mother of two nine-month old cubs.
“We hate being in this position that we have to kill an animal,” she tells PEOPLE. “We manage the well-being of wildlife. But we have to face the facts that this bear could have had rabies and we can’t risk the possibility of another attack. We have to test for rabies, by law, and the only way to do that is with a sample from the brain.”
“I think the key factor in this highly unusual case is that the victim ran. We always tell people to never turn your back and run – talk in a loud voice, look big and stay together in a group. Back away slowly,” says Sajecki. “If you run that can trigger an instinctual chase mechanism. Of course, that’s hard to remember in the moment.”
Although Laurie Cooksey only sustained minor injuries, she doesn’t plan on heading back into the mountains any time soon.
“No sir, not for me. I’ll go hike in Machu Picchu maybe,” she says. “But absolutely nowhere that there might be bears.”
For more information on Virginia bear awareness, visit the state’s website.