HORRIFIC new details have emerged of how a safari guide risked his own life by repeatedly punching a raging lioness in the face as the animal fatally mauled New Yorker Katherine Chappell.
Eyewitness Ben Govender described the heroic battle in an interview Saturday — the same day relatives and friends held a memorial service for the beautiful and “fearless’’ 29-year-old adventurer.
The lion attack took place last Monday at a popular lion park just outside Johannesburg, after Ms Chappell rolled down the window of her SUV to snap a better shot, of the animal, who was lying on the ground.
Without warning, the lion stood up on its rear paws, balancing on the vehicle. Then it suddenly lunged forward and grabbed Ms Chappell through the window.
“We saw the (guide) diving into the passenger seat and punching at the lioness,” recalled Mr Govender, 38, an engineer and photographer.
The South African guide, Pierre Potgieter, 66, suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised after what he called “the worst experience’’ of his life.
Mr Govender continued, “after the first bite, the lioness retreated from the car with blood dripping from her mouth and paw.’’
But the horror was far from over.
The animal staged a second, even more devastating, attack.
“Her face was torn apart. The right side of her chest was gone,” Mr Govender said of Ms Chappell. “Nothing could have been done to save that woman.’’
The lioness, Mr Govender said, “had half … her shoulder in its mouth.’’
Mr Govender witnessed the attack while sitting in a car behind Ms Chappell’s vehicle.
He took a chilling photo of the lioness with its head at the Ms Chappell’s window, not realising what was going to happen next.
Ms Chappell, who worked as a visual-effects artist on HBO’s Game of Thrones and big-budget flicks including Captain America and Godzilla, was in South Africa volunteering at a different wildlife preserve, relatives said Saturday during the service at the Graham Funeral Home.
Her boyfriend, Greyson Hoare, tearfully told the gathering of about 100 mourners he had warned Chappell before she left, to remember “she’s just a city girl, she has to be careful out there.”
Chappell’s sister, Jennifer Ringwald, delivered a eulogy calling her “fearless.”
“Katie had an unbridled passion for everything under the sun,” Ms Ringwald said. “Nobody who met her could ever forget her.”
“Her flaw was that she was a 5-foot-4, 90-pound woman, but deep down she believed she was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound man,” she said.
The lion park, which remains open, has defended itself, saying that visitors are instructed to keep windows closed at all times, and that the ambulance arrived soon after the attack. The South African guide, Mr Potgieter, who was seated in the car next to Ms Chappell when the lioness attacked has also defended his actions.
Mr Potgieter’s wife Corlien said: ‘The cardiologist said my husband must have had a heart attack as he was fending off the lion, or just after.
“His wounds are clean and there doesn’t seem to be any problem with them, it is just his heart we are now concerned about. It’s a terrible thing that has happened, truly unbelievable … our hearts go out to this woman.”
Mrs Potgieter denied claims that her husband’s vehicle had its front windows open prior to the attack on Monday afternoon, flouting the park’s rules. In a statement on behalf of their business, Kalabash Tours, she said Miss Chappell had opened her window ‘of her own accord’ at the last moment.
The tour company also accused an employee at the privately-run Lion Park of failing to help after Ms Chappell, 29, suffered severe injuries to her neck in the attack on Monday.
“The tourist had a camera and, of her own accord, rolled down the passenger window in order to take photographs. A lion then attacked (her) through the open window,” said the statement.
“(Mr Potgieter) tried to fend the lioness off and in the process sustained injuries to his arm.
“When the lion retreated, Mr Potgieter saw that the tourist had sustained extremely serious injuries. She was bleeding profusely from her neck.”
The statement, released late Wednesday, said Potgieter tried to save her life but that a park employee who arrived on the scene was “reluctant” to help give first aid to Chappell.
“The ambulance only arrived some time thereafter. For Mr Potgieter, this felt like a very long time,” it added.
The park where the mauling occurred allows lions to roam while tourists drive through the preserve. The lion has been put in an enclosure not open to the public. It was the latest attack at the park, which is popular with both locals and foreigners.
In March, an Australian tourist was injured by a lion after driving through the park with his car windows open.
Two days later, a 13-year-old from a nearby slum was attacked by a cheetah while riding a bicycle through the grounds.
In December 2013, former South African franchise rugby player Brett Tucker and his family were attacked by a lion and his father reportedly suffered minor injuries.
Ms Chappell travelled to South Africa a week ago via London from Vancouver, where she was a visual effects editor.
Ms Chappell’s mother, Mary Chappell of Rye, told The Journal News that her daughter went to South Africa to work for two weeks as a volunteer at a different preserve, one dedicated to saving rhinoceroses and elephants. Katherine Chappell had hoped to make a movie about animal poaching, her mother said.
“She lived a life of adventure — she loved travelling, she was full of life,” the mother said.
Katherine Chappell had visited Japan, Australia and Europe as well as Africa, Mary Chappell said.
She said Ms Chappell had spent the past year in Vancouver, Canada, working for a special effects company Scanline on projects including HBO’s Game of Thrones and the upcoming movie Pan and Ron Howard’s Into the Heart of the Sea, which opens later this year
She was part of the special effects team that won a Primetime Emmy for 2014 Game of Thrones episode The Children.
Ms Chappell’s sister Jennifer paid tribute to her on Facebook, writing: “Katie was a brilliant, kind, adventurous and high-spirited woman … she was very much loved and shared her love for life with those she met.”
Chappell is survived by her parents, two sisters, a brother and a brother-in-law.