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Rescued from the Mouth of the Lion

Cheryl Wilcox - 700 Club Producer

CBN.com What happened? That's all James Hjelle remembers thinking when he got a cell phone call about his wife, Anne.

"I didn't know if she was dead or alive," he says. "Nobody told me anything. I just rushed there straight from work."

An avid mountain biker, Anne had been out on a trail with her friend and riding partner, Debbie Nicholls. It was a beautiful afternoon. They had made this ride hundreds of times before. They had no way of knowing the danger lurking in the brush ahead of them. Debbie recalls that day on the trail.

"We had started riding about 4 o'clock, and typically it takes about 30 minutes to get were it gets fun and technical, doing our usual ride," Debbie says. "Anne and I started to descend what is called cactus. Shortly into the trail, we saw an abandoned bike. There was a gentleman close to it, and he looked like he was making a cell phone call. We seemed to think everything was fine."

The women were completely unaware that earlier that afternoon a male biker had been killed and dragged into the nearby brush. Anne and Debbie were descending right into the area were the attacker was still lurking.

Says Debbie, "Anne was in front of me on a turn, descending. I heard her screaming. It was an unusual scream, almost like a siren scream, and I knew something was unusually wrong.

"When I came up to her," Debbie continues, "she was already off her bike, and he was starting to drag her off the trail. I threw my bike, hoping to scare him off. He didn't budge. He had her by the back of the neck at that point. I could see that he was going to keep moving, so I lunged forward to grab her leg and drop to the ground. He was strong. He kept pulling. He never looked at me. When I saw this large, reddish animal, I knew it was a mountain lion.

"I was just really saying a prayer the entire time he was pulling us, just praying for the strength that I could hold onto her and scream. I could see her looking at me. I had only known Anne for three years, but I'm a mother. I think half of what I did was motherly instincts. This lion was just not going to let go."

It was a life-and-death struggle that seemed like an eternity but actually only lasted a couple of minutes. The mountain lion had pulled the women about 30 feet into the ravine. Debbie's screams alerted other bikers on the trail. They responded by picking up rocks and pelting the cat. One connected on the back of the big cat's neck, and he released his grip from around Anne's throat.

Anne Hjelle with Debbie NichollsWithin minutes of the attack, Anne was taken to a local trauma unit. She had severe injuries to her neck and face. Some of the bite marks around Anne's neck had completely pierced through the tissue, just missing major arteries. The entire left side of her face had been torn off.

"But for me looking at her, I wasn't so concerned about that. I was concerned with what was going on around her neck area because it was actually bubbling," says James. "I was very thankful that she was alive. I was very emotional. Actually, I think I cried. They just rolled up a gurney, and we laid there and just held hands. I think that was all that we needed to do was be touching each other and that we were going to be together and that wasn't going to change. Just knowing that I loved my wife for everything, a couple of scars wouldn't matter to me. I actually love my wife more today than the day I married her."

"That was all I needed was to know that he was there by my side and knowing him to know that he would be by my side through it all. I never had a question about that," Anne says.

Anne endured six hours of reconstructive surgery and months of recovery. Ever since her story of surviving the mountain lion attack made national news, Anne says the most painful part has not been her permanent injuries, but her grief over the death of the other biker on the trail that day. Anne and James feel the tragic loss for his family amid their own joy of Anne's rescue.

"I was absolutely ecstatic my wife was alive," says James. "It would be the hardest thing in the world losing someone you love. That was one of my fears. To know the extent of the injuries were millimeters from death, if any little twitch, she would have died, the wrong leverage with Debbie holding onto her leg, she would have died, it was that close, that is a miracle to me."

Adds Anne, "It was a terrifying experience, and it felt like it dragged on forever, but I honestly didn't think at that point that I was going to make it. I was thinking, I am not afraid of dying because of my faith in Christ. I know where I'm going. I did feel almost a peace, because at that point it was out of my control. There was nothing I could do at that point, so it was in God's hands. As the lion clamped down, I was trying to say good-bye to Debbie because I knew I couldn't get any air any longer and I was watching the fear in her eyes. Watching it all was pretty tough.

Anne HjelleWhen Anne reflects on the most terrifying moments of her life, the Scripture verse from John 15:13 takes on a richer, deeper meaning: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

"I think that did play a role that she is a mother of four. It's our nature to think about our well-being, but she obviously didn't," Anne says of her friend Debbie. "She and I are close, and I'm so blessed to have her as a friend and have her that day. I'm very thankful."

"We are amazed how God has gotten us through and given us incredible support from friends and family and church," Anne continues. "When this happened, people were coming out of the woodwork telling us how much they loved us, writing letters. It's incredible. I would never wishl this to happen to anyone, but on the other hand, to feel the love and support - I wish everyone could feel that. Through this, people have done that for me."

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