Plucked from the Jaws

updated 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

At about 4:00 p.m. on Jan. 8, Anne Hjelle, 30, a personal trainer from Mission Viejo, Calif., set out with her pal Debi Nicholls, 48, an interior designer and mountain bike racer from Trabuco Canyon, to ride their bikes in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, which is 12 miles from Irvine. What happened next unfolded in the space of just a few minutes. As those involved told PEOPLE's Lyndon Stambler, it was a lesson in how courage—and a little luck—can sometimes thwart tragedy.

Nicholls: Anne was 30 yards ahead of me on the Cactus Trail, which is only a couple of feet wide. I couldn't see her. Suddenly I heard screaming. As I came around the corner I saw this mountain lion. He was on top of her; she was on her back. I got off my bike and threw it at him. That didn't seem to alarm him. He was reddish brown and very long and lean. [The mountain lion was a 2-year-old male weighing 110 lbs.]

Bikers Nils Magnuson, 34, a computer technician from Long Beach, and Michael Castellano, 41, an auto sales manager from Dana Point, were stopped nearby when they heard the screams.

Magnuson: It sounded like somebody having a leg ripped off. I jumped on my bike. As I came up on them I yelled out, "Hey, is everything okay?" Then I heard the girl's voice: "No, my friend is getting eaten by a mountain lion!"

Nicholls: The lion was quickly dragging Anne by her neck down the trail and then off the path. I ran up and grabbed her leg with my right arm and dropped to the ground and hung on. He pulled us down the mountain about 30 or 40 feet through brush. I'd grabbed her left leg and I had my right leg digging in the ground and my left leg trying to fend him off. I never let go because she would have been out of sight in no time.

Her face was very bloody. He had her helmet at that point and was pulling her along and then he would release and then he would go to her face. I had to hold so tight on to her leg. Anne said, "I'm going to die." I said, "You're not. I will never let go of your leg. I will never let go of your leg." She was praying a lot at that time. It was "Dear God, please God."

Magnuson: I couldn't see Anne's head. It was completely engulfed in the mouth of the mountain lion. I felt instant terror. And then fear for my own life. What am I going to do? I'm thinking I have nothing that will be able to take this mountain lion out.

Castellano: You could see the top teeth on one side of the face and bottom teeth on the other. There was a tremendous amount of blood. It was all over the mountain lion's mouth and all over Anne's face. I didn't know if Anne was still even with us.

Nicholls: It was a tug of war. I would pull, he would pull. I was swearing at him. I called out to the men, "I can't hold on to her much longer." They were frightened, trying to figure out what to do. I told them to throw rocks.

Magnuson: I noticed a rock, really a boulder. I hesitated for a split second because—I know this sounds funny—but I was afraid I was going to maybe hurt Anne, even though her head was in the mountain lion's mouth. You think crazy things like that. I threw it as hard as I could toward the mountain lion. Nothing happened.

Castellano: Anne was very limp at that point. Debi was incredibly courageous. She was inches from that mountain lion. It could have let go of Anne and taken a swipe at her with its paw.

I picked up two rocks that were literally twice the size of softballs. I heaved the first one like a fastball. It hit the lion in its rear leg. It still wouldn't let go. The next one I threw, I was aiming for right behind its head. It hit behind the neck. That's when it let go, and it disappeared into the brush.

Within 20 minutes paramedics were on the scene. A helicopter brought Hjelle to Mission Hospital Regional Medical center in Mission Viejo, where doctors treated her for severe lacerations to the face and neck. Her condition is listed as fair and she is expected to be released soon. Near where the attack took place, sheriff's deputies found the partially eaten body of Mark Jeffrey Reynolds, 35, who had gone biking earlier that day and who had apparently been killed by the same mountain lion. Authorities later tracked what they believe was that lion and shot it.

Nicholls: It was pretty much adrenaline. It's not something you train for. I think you either have it in your instincts or you don't.

Magnuson: Debi was fearless. She was basically going face-to-face with this mountain lion saying, "You're not taking my friend. Dead or alive, she is coming with me."

From Our Partners