WEST VALLEY CITY — A 5-year-old boy suffered severe facial injuries Friday afternoon after he was attacked by a pit bull.

"He yelled, 'The dog bit my face off and I think I'm going to die,'" said Greg Johansen, who was one of the first to help the boy.

By Friday night, everyone in young Andrew Vanderwerff's neighborhood was first and foremost worried about the boy and his recovery. But questions about how the dog got out of his fenced yard and why he attacked were in dispute and still under investigation by Animal Control officers. They took the animal and had it impounded, pending an investigation.

The incident happened about 3:30 p.m. near 4200 West and 3000 South. Vanderwerff had stopped a couple of girls on the sidewalk near his house and asked them if they wanted to hear him sing a Halloween song, according to neighbors and relatives.

As the boy was singing, "Tank," a young pit bull that weighs 50 to 60 pounds ran up to Andrew, knocked him down and began biting his face.

"We saw, like, everything," said 11-year-old Emmalee Petersen. "When he went home his face was all bloody and his cheek was bit off."

Petersen and other children ran to get Andrew's mother, who came to her son's rescue. She pulled the dog off her son and threw it to the ground, according to Andrew's grandmother, Shirley Moffitt.

"(The dog) took a big chunk out of his cheek," said Moffitt. "We found a piece of his cheek on the ground and took it to the hospital."

Andrew had so much blood on him that it was hard to see his face, Moffitt said. By the time Johansen arrived to help, he said the boy had a big wet towel over his cheek and he was yelling, but he wasn't crying.

"He was a trooper," Johansen said. "He just yelled, 'Oh my gosh. Somebody help me, somebody help me!'"

The boy was flown by medical helicopter to Primary Children's Medical Center. While the Deseret News was talking to Moffitt, she received a call from the boy's mother at the hospital who gave her an update. Andrew, she said, had a large chunk of his cheek bitten off, a gash on his forehead, a scrape mark on his chin and a bite mark right under one of his arm pits.

"We're just lucky we got to him as soon as we did," Moffitt said.

Johansen, who visited Andrew at the hospital, said the boy would need several surgeries and hospital visits over the next few weeks. But there was a chance he could be stitched up and bandaged and sent home Friday night.

Petersen said the dog had been following other children in the neighborhood prior to the attack. But the dog had always been nice, according to neighbors. Moffitt said even Andrew was familiar with the dog and never had a problem with him.

How Tank got out of his pen was still under investigation Friday. Andrew's family said they had heard stories the strong dog chewed through its harness, found a hole in his pen and then managed to get out of the fenced yard.

Tank's owner, Nate Petersen, (not related to Emmalee) however, said the only way the dog could have gotten out was if somebody had let him out.

Petersen said his first concern was for Andrew.

"I feel for the boy. I hope he's OK," he said. "I'm honestly concerned."

But Petersen said he also was concerned the incident would result not only in his dog being labeled as vicious, but it would be another unwarranted black mark on the character of all pit bulls.

Petersen said his dog had never been aggressive toward anyone. There is a 2-year-old girl that lives in his house. Toys could be seen scattered all over Petersen's yard Friday.

"He's never once attacked. We've never had a problem here," he said.

Petersen said he is a responsible dog owner. When he's not home, he takes extra care to tether Tank inside a chain-linked pen, which is already inside a fenced yard.

"The only way to get out is to break the leash, which he did not do," he said. "I take every precaution necessary. I keep him inside the dog run."

Petersen said that Andrew has a reputation of wandering the neighborhood and going uninvited into people's yards and homes.

"He's been on this property before, wandering around. We've taken him home and asked the mother to watch him," he said.

Petersen said that three times, he has caught Andrew poking his dog with a broom handle through the fence, including twice earlier in the day on Friday.

"He's poking my dog in the side and in the head," he said.

West Valley police Friday night said they had heard the same stories from both sides, and it would be up to Animal Control to determine who was culpable. As of Friday night, no citations had been issue.

Email: preavy@desnews.com