Since 26-year-old Angel Heaton shot herself in the hip with the .40-caliber handgun intended to save her from bears, she’s pretty much become the poster child for the worst that can go wrong when Alaskans turn to firearms for wilderness protection.
Heaton was rescued from the Talkeetna Mountains by the Alaska National Guard on Saturday after tapping out a cry for help on a Garmin In-Reach GPS and two-way, satellite communication device.
What happened to her might have gone unnoticed had she not posted an account of her accident on social media earlier this week. On her Facebook page today, she added that she wrote about the shooting “to raise awareness of gun safety. My easy-going, I know how to shoot one gun so I must be fine, almost cost me my life. Also how important it is to have a GPS with the SOS feature on it when going out on trips like mine.”
Heaton, who now lives in the Anchorage metropolitan area but hails from Fairbanks, was discharged from the Providence Medical Center on Tuesday and messaged Wednesday via Facebook that she was willing to talk about her bear-fear-inspired nightmare near the Mint Glacier, but added that she was “still trying to wake up from it.”
She has since stopped responding to messages amid questions raised on the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) Facebook page about firearm safety and apparently other comments made elsewhere on social media.
“It’s easy to call me a moron, to laugh at my stupidity,” she wrote today. “To say I deserved to die for it. And yes I’m talking to the many people who’ve shared this story only to make me feel even worse.”
Though dozens of people commented on the MCA page, no one there called her a moron or suggested she deserved to die. In fact, it appears almost the opposite.
Most of the comments are sympathetic and supportive with most observing that accidents happen, expressing sympathy and wishing Heaton – who also goes by the name Angel Harrison – a speedy recovery.
An MCA post saying “it might be a good idea to do a bit of research on bear behavior and gun safety” appears to have been the harshest comment, and the references to bear spray are generally oblique even though a debate about firearms versus pepper spray for bear protection has raged for years now in the 49th state.
Widely available bear spray has proven effective in stopping dozens of bears attack, but a Wyoming hunting guide using spray was killed by a bear last fall. After his death, authorities located the grizzly sow that had attacked him and killed her.
There are no known deaths from anyone accidentally dosing themselves with pepper spray though that is theoretically possible. Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations say they have documented two deaths and 70 cases of people who “suffered permanent disabilities” after being sprayed with capsaicin-powered weapons.
Capsaicin is the eye and respiratory-system irritant in pepper-spray weapons designed for use against bears, humans, dogs and other mammals. Bear spray contains a lot less of the chemical – a concentration of 1 to 2 percent – than “pepper sprays used in law enforcement (which) reportedly have a capsaicin content of between 10 and 30 percent,” according to Medical News Today.
Unlike bear spray, firearms have a long history of involvement in accidental deaths. Heaton, according to her account, nearly joined the list of victims because of a moment of carelessness.
Lost in the dark only 200 yards from the MCA’s Mint Hut on Saturday night, she wrote, she pitched her tent, crawled into her sleeping bag, and pulled a .40-caliber, semi-automatic pistol into the bag next to her hip.
“I was scared a bear would mistake me for a Hot Pocket,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, I failed to remember that this gun I was borrowing had no safety.”
When she fumbled with it, it went off.
“I was dazed at first trying to register what just happened,” she said. “I expose(d) my thigh and sure enough, BAM. I thought that mortifying until I noticed the entry wound on my hip.”
The bullet had gone in her hip, shattered the top of her pelvis on the right side, traveled down her leg and come out her thigh.
“Instantly, (I) hit my SOS call button on my GPS at 1:12 a.m.,” she wrote. “I could feel deaths cold breath on my neck. All I could do at that moment is lay there frozen.”
That didn’t last long.
Medically trained, she used what she had to staunch the bleeding. She wrapped her belt around her thigh as a tourniquet and pressed her sports bra against the entry wound on her hip. Then she resumed messaging for help.
She would wait three hours for rescuers to arrive and later express surprise it could take so long, although by search-and-rescue norms for the Alaska wilderness three hours is fast.
When at last she heard an approaching helicopter, she switched on her headlamp and began waving it out the window of the tent, she said. Two pararescue-jumpers (PJs) from the Guard’s 210th/212th Rescue Squadrons were at her side in minutes.
“These men saved my life,” she wrote. “They even gathered all of my gear so I wouldn’t need to leave it behind.”
“I never should’ve carried a gun I didn’t have the proper training with,” Heaton confessed on the MCA Facebook page. “So many things I should’ve done differently. I took weeks to prepare for this trip. It wasn’t just some rash decision. At the last moment I decided to leave my gun, the gun I was trained with. To take my friends per recommendation.”
She does not mention her oversize fear of bears that popped up in earlier posts about her plans to hike to the Mint Hut on what was to be her first real wilderness adventure.
“I’ve posted a few times regarding my upcoming hike to the Mint Hut,” she added. “I had almost 0 experience in hiking. True hiking that is. Well it ended horribly. lol.”
It is not, however, a laughing matter as she later made clear:
“That night consumes me. I can’t sleep for more than two hours without waking up, thinking I’m in that tent screaming all alone. I can’t function without thinking about what I did wrong. It was an honest mistake. I was trying the best I could for my first hike. I didn’t know.
“I just wanted to share this story in hopes of preventing someone else…making the mistakes I did.”
Some the mistakes, however, aren’t really pointed out. Heaton never saw a bear. There are bears in the area of the Talkeetnas where she was hiking, but there are not great numbers of bears.
As things turned out, she would have clearly been better off with no weapon than a weapon with which she was unfamiliar – a weapon which she claimed had “no safety” and in which she left a round in the chamber.
One of the first firearm safety rules is that a gun with an empty chamber won’t fire, but if the chamber is empty, it does take a second to ratchet a round into the chamber. Heaton’s fear of bears might have led her to believe she wouldn’t have the time to do that, although bear attacks on people in tents in Alaska are even rarer than bear attacks in general.
About eight attacks per year is the average for this decade, according to bear researchers Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero, and most people survive. The death rate is less than one per year on average.
Fears of bear, however, have been heightened by an uptick in fatalities in the past two years. Grizzly bears killed two Alaskans last year, and black bears killed two people the year before.
Since 2010, black bears have killed three people, and grizzlies – which are generally more aggressive – have killed four. The seven fatalities, while tragic, pale when compared to the number of deaths on Alaska roadways.
And yet people do not fear driving. Instead, like Heaton, a lot of them fear bears.
That fear and a moment of carelessness – not the bears – almost got her killed.