American woman killed by lion had gone to South Africa to help animals

Posted at 4:54 PM, Jun 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-04 07:54:37-04

GAUTENG, South Africa -- Katherine Chappell went to South Africa on a volunteer mission to protect wildlife. But as the American was taking photos of a pride of lions at a safari park on Monday, one of them leaped up against the vehicle she was in and fatally attacked her, according to accounts of the incident. Her family is heartbroken.

"Katie was a brilliant, kind, adventurous and high-spirited woman," a family member said in a Facebook post. "Her energy and passion could not be contained by mere continents or oceans."

A memorial service will be held Saturday in her hometown of Rye, New York.

"She was very much loved and shared her love for life with those she met," her family said.

Witness honked horns as lion drew near

Details are still emerging of what exactly happened Monday at the Lion Park in Gauteng province. The deadly incident is under investigation by authorities.

A South African tour operator, Pierre Potgieter, 66, was driving Chappell around the park. Inside the lion enclosures, they stopped to view a group of the animals.

At that point, Chappell "rolled down the passenger window in order to take photographs," according to Potgieter's company, Kalabash Tours.

But she apparently didn't notice that one of the lions was approaching the vehicle from the side.

Witnesses in other vehicles honked their horns, trying to get the attention of Chappell and Potgieter as the animal got nearer, according to a source close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The lion stopped about a meter from the vehicle as Chappell continued taking pictures, a Lion Park statement said. The animal then lunged at the car, biting the woman through the open window.

Tour guide suffered injuries

Potgeiter says he tried to fend the lion off, suffering injuries to his arm as he did so. He may also have suffered a heart attack, Kalabash Tours said.

After the lion backed off, Chappell was left bleeding profusely from her neck, and Potgieter applied constant pressure to try to stop it, the tour company said.

An ambulance arrived within minutes, the park said. But it wasn't in time to save Chappell, who died at the scene.

Opening windows 'absolutely forbidden'

Opening windows is a big no-no at Lion Park.

"That's absolutely forbidden at our park," said Scott Simpson, assistant operations manager at Lion Park. "There are numerous signs, and we hand out slips of paper to all guests warning them to keep their windows closed."

The source close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the notice warning guests to keep their windows closed was found on the passenger side seat of the vehicle.

There are conflicting accounts over how many of the vehicle's windows were open and when.

Lion Park has cited witnesses as saying that both the passenger's and driver's windows were open.

But Potgieter "strongly denies that they were driving around the lion enclosures with open windows," the tour company said.

Kalabash Tours said Potgieter is "severely traumatized" following the incident and "is not capable of giving a detailed account of the incident at present."

Lion not expected to be killed

Potgieter wants to express "his deepest condolences" to Chappell's family and friends, the company said.

Lion Park said it was "incredibly sad that a life had to be lost in this manner."

Simpson said the lion would be taken to a second property while the park investigates the attack. It will not be euthanized.

"Visitors to South Africa need to remember that predators are dangerous and rules are there for their own safety," the park said. "If all the rules are adhered to (during) your visit to the Lion Park, national parks and other similar facilities will be a safe and treasured experience."