It’s a good thing Linda Hitz said her prayers with her traveling companions before she left a youth temple camp in Billings Friday. Hitz was transporting five Lovell youth home from an LDS temple trip to Billings when she heard a loud thump coming from the passenger side of her 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
“It all happened so fast,” said Hitz. “I didn’t even have time to process what was happening. There was a flash of black fur, a loud noise and the airbags deployed.”
Hitz was transporting Rachel Smith, 14, Logan Hitz, 12, Ben Cornia, 12 and Porter Nicols, 12, from a youth program the teenagers had been attending at the LDS temple in Billings when she hit a 300-pound black bear near the Rockvale cemetery in Montana, on Friday, Aug. 17, at around 9:30 p.m.
Hitz said she and her passengers barely felt the airbags after they deployed and pressed against their bodies. They barely felt much of a jerking motion against the seatbelts they were all wearing.
“I heard the sound of a deep loud thump,” said Hitz. “We thought we had hit a dog.”
Hitz said the air bags immediately emitted a chemical smell and a smoky substance into the air inside of the vehicle. She quickly found a safe place to pull over and got the children a safe distance from the vehicle.
Hitz was traveling in a caravan of several cars also on their way home from the temple.
“The people in the car behind me said there were no brake lights,” said Hitz, who estimates she was traveling about 65 mph at the time she hit the bear.
Out of curiosity the boys went looking for the animal that was hit. At first they thought it was a large black dog, then they thought it was a black calf. One of the boys felt the foot of the animal in the darkness and realized it had claws and exclaimed to the group that it must be a bear.
“It was really dark and all we had was a very dim flashlight, so we tried to use our cell phones for light to see what we had hit,” explained Hitz. “I was shocked when we realized it was a bear.”
Hitz quickly called the children’s parents to inform them that there had been an accident and to assure them that no one was injured. The parents were also travelling in the caravan. She also called the Montana Highway Patrol Dept.
Damage to her car included a bashed in grill, radiator and other front-end damage. The cost to reset the vehicle’s airbags alone is estimated at $3,500 to $5,000. The cost of repairing other damage to the vehicle was not yet available at press time. According to Hitz, the bear appeared to have died on impact.
“I am very very grateful that no one in the car was hurt and that none of the kids were feeling any pain after the accident,” said Hitz. “Davey Crockett and I will have to swap bear stories.”
Hitz spoke to a local farmer the next day who said he and his neighbors had seen bears in the area recently. The highway patrolman on the scene told Hitz that the bear carcass was property of the State of Montana and it was later removed from the scene and taken to the Montana Fish and Game Dept. in Billings.
“I was disappointed they didn’t let me take the carcass,” said Hitz. “All I got from all this is a photo and bits of fur stuck in my bumper.”
By Patti Carpenter