Pflugerville man saves friend during chimp attack
Escaped primate attacked group near sanctuary in Africa
His friend’s hand was a mangled mess, most of it was gone. The station wagon had stalled after the driver desperately tried to ram through a gate. And now the chimpanzee that had attacked them on an isolated mountain road in West Africa was coming at them again.
What was supposed to be a day of sightseeing Sunday at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary had turned into a moment that will forever be seared into Gary Brown’s memory.
"I knew I was going to die, but I didn’t want to die running," said the 51-year-old Pflugerville man, who was working as a contractor in Sierra Leone.
Inside the Peugeot station wagon were Brown; two American co-workers; Melvin Mammah, a friend Brown had met in Freetown, the capital; and Issa Kanu, who had been driving them back and forth to work and other places during their stay. Brown was in Africa working for a telecommunications company at the U.S. Embassy, said officials with Spectrum Solutions and Caddell Construction.
Brown, who returned home Tuesday, didn’t know at the time that more than a dozen chimps had escaped from the 100-acre sanctuary near Freetown. And he didn’t know that chimps would attack people. When the chimp had appeared on the road in front of them, he had fished for his camera, eager to get a snapshot.
But Kanu seemed to know something was wrong and put the car in reverse.
That’s when the chimp charged, Brown said.
He said it tore off the side mirror and broke through the back windshield.
"It was like the glass wasn’t even there," he said.
Brown said he’s 5-foot-9 and weighs more than 200 pounds, and the chimp probably outweighed him.
"He had every bit two-inch fangs, and he was screaming like a banshee . . . when he was charging us."
Mammah fought the chimp off but not before the chimp bit off half of his hand, Brown said.
They wrapped up Mammah’s hand and drove forward, trying to outrun the chimp, Brown said. Then they came to a steel gate. Kanu rammed it, and the gate opened, but not enough to get the car through, he said.
The car stalled, its front end crumpled. Reverse didn’t work, so they got out and tried to push it backward so they could turn it around, Brown said.
"He was charging again, coming up the road," Brown said. "When we turned around, we all dove in the car."
Kanu tried the key again. The wagon started, and he tried to drive through the opening in the gate, but the car became wedged into the opening, Brown said.
The chimp "went across the top of the car, and that’s when . . . it was just a flurry trying to get away from it. Melvin got pulled out of the car by it."
When he jumped out of the car, Brown said he heard Mammah screaming for help. Everyone else in the car had fled, Brown said.
Brown said he used to work as a telephone lineman and was used to facing down angry dogs. He spotted a large tree limb.
"I grabbed it and I just started to charge around the car to go help Melvin," he said.
"I believe it was God who got me through it, he turned my fear into anger."
The chimp charged him, he said, and he drove the end of the limb into its throat and then chased it away.
Mammah looked like he was bleeding to death but refused to allow Brown to carry him, Brown said. He said he looked for the chimp and spotted it in the jungle, watching him. He could hear chimpanzees screaming all around them.
Brown said he helped Mammah hobble down the road, where a military patrol found them and took them to a hospital.
Later, a van pulled up with Kanu’s mangled body. Brown said he thought the other Americans were dead, too.
"I can’t get it out of my head," he said.
Mammah lost all but two fingers on one hand but is recovering in a Freetown hospital. The two other Americans escaped to the embassy.
Doug Cress, the executive director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, said the chimps in the sanctuary are former pets that have been abused by humans. He said the chimp that attacked Brown’s group was probably panicked because it was in unfamiliar territory.
Chimpanzees are five times stronger than humans, and when they get upset in the wild, they uproot trees and throw rocks and "just go insane with pent-up force," Cress said.
Authorities are not sure which chimp attacked the men, said Cress, who is a friend of the founder of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The chimps will be brought back to the sanctuary but will not be euthanized, he said.
Brown, meanwhile, is just glad to be home.
"I just lived a nightmare," he said. "I know if I hadn’t fought, we would all be dead.
"From what they explained to me, I became the alpha male when I charged him," Brown said. "He wasn’t expecting a fight."