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Trip leader describes bear attack
The trip leader of an expedition in which a 17-year-old boy was mauled to death by a polar bear has told an inquest how he wrestled with the predator as it attacked him after his rifle failed to fire.
Horatio Chapple was on an adventure holiday to the remote Svalbard islands in August 2011 with the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) when he died.
The Eton pupil, from Salisbury, Wiltshire, was sleeping in his tent when the bear went on the rampage, inflicting fatal injuries to his head and upper body.
Four others were hurt before the bear was shot dead at the camp site, where the group, known as Chanzin Fire, had been staying.
Also injured during the incident were Andrew Ruck, 27, from Brighton, 17-year-old Patrick Flinders, from Jersey, and 16-year-old Scott Bennell-Smith, from St Mellion in Cornwall.
Trip leader Michael Reid, known as Spike, from Plymouth, Devon, told the Salisbury inquest that he was awoken by several people shouting "bear attack". He then grabbed the group's rifle and left his tent.
He said: "There were shouts of 'bear', or 'bear attack', male voices, from more than one person. Immediately I exited the tent through one of the doors with the rifle.
"The only priority was getting out as swiftly as possible and taking the rifle with me as this was a serious situation."
He continued: "The bear was close and it was on top of one of the YEs (young explorers) in their sleeping bags. I believe it was Scott Bennell-Smith.
"I was not focussing on other people other than the bear that was on top of person on the ground. I do not recall seeing Horatio.
"I cocked the rifle, took aim, aimed it carefully as I didn't want to shoot the YE, although it was close I didn't want to injure the YE or worse.
"So I took a carefully aimed shot at the bear in the chest area of the bear but the rifle didn't fire. I cocked the rifle again and took another attempt at an aimed shot at the bear.
"I do not know why this failure was happening and so I carried on this until the magazine was empty.
"The bear was very close so I was able to get a clear aim."
Describing how the bear then turned on him, Mr Reid said: "The bear then came and attacked me because the rifle was then on the ground beside me.
"I shouted 'Use your pen rounds' event though I hadn't briefed the others where they were stored overnight, and although they are not safe to use (in close quarters) they are better than this bear carrying on.
"I remember the bear biting my head and I thought the weakest part is the eyes so I tried to take out the eyes with my fingers, but was unsuccessful.
"Once it had moved off me I then recall asking 'Where is my rifle?' and someone said 'It's in your tent' and I found it there.
"With one of the rounds that was on the ground having been ejected, I cocked the rifle and fired the round at the bear as it was attacking someone else."
He said that this time the weapon worked and fired a shot at the bear.
The inquest has heard that the Mauser 98K rifle had a three-position safety catch mechanism which meant that rounds could be ejected if fired with the catch in the highest position.
Mr Reid said that he was unaware of this at the time and did not know which position the catch had been in at the time.
He said: "From the reports I have read, there's a chance that the safety catch had got up in that position."
Mr Reid said he had no recollection of seeing Horatio during the incident but went on to pay tribute to the youngster.
He said: "He was a member of our team, one of the best in our team if not the best in the whole expedition.
"He was a fine young gentleman with amazing potential, I enjoyed being on the expedition with him."
Mr Reid said a bear watch could have been held on the night of the attack but it would have left the team tired and left them vulnerable to cold-related illness during the coming day's planned long trek.
Mr Reid, 31, who was seriously injured in the attack, added that although he believed the person he saw being attacked by the bear was Scott Bennell-Smith, from information he had since received this might be incorrect.
Mr Reid said the expedition had been supplied with an incomplete tripwire system, meaning they had to set it up in a triangle formation rather than the advised rectangular shape.
He explained that his group also had to improvise using a paper clip to modify the trigger system because the brass fittings were missing.
He said: "The tripwire system in base camp worked inconsistently, the system that we tested at the ice-climbing camp on our first or second night out from the base camp operated 100% when we tested it."
He also said that any tripwire systems were not foolproof because the cartridge would not fire if the bear walked into the post, knocking it over, rather than the wire.
Andrew Ruck, from Edinburgh, who was mountain leader for the group, described how the polar bear moved from attacking Mr Reid to himself.
He said the bear at one point had its paws on his shoulders and he was looking straight into its face.
Describing waking up in his tent, he said: "I woke up straight away and sat bolt upright, I then remember Spike or I opening the tent to see the polar bear there, I do not think it had anyone or anything in its mouth at that stage."
He said that he then saw Mr Reid attempting to fire the rifle at the bear.
He said: "He tried to fire the rifle four times, bullets emptied out, he shouted 'It's not working' and then the bear came over to him and knocked him to the floor.
"After that I exited the tent through the other entrance. I just charged towards the bear, shouted and picked up rocks and threw them at its face.
"I remember the bear then attacked me and knocked me straight to the floor, it's paws were on my shoulder, I remember seeing its face.
"It swiped my face with its claw and my head would have ended up in its mouth at some point.
"The bear left me for some reason but I had very few clear thoughts after that.
"I know I ended up not in the spot where it attacked me and ended up right next to Horatio, I must have been aware someone had been very badly injured and I think I was trying to help."
Mr Ruck said that a decision had been made to use a tripwire system as an early warning alert that night and added that a bear watch would have had its own risks if it had been used instead.
He said: "Bear watches themselves carry considerable risk, they are absolutely not a fool-proof system, they are open to human error.
"In 2002 I personally briefly fell asleep on a bear watch when I was 18 and I was a YE (young explorer). I knew there was a very much that possibility of that happening with very tired members of the fire and it's possible having several people standing outside with a bear approaching, they probably wouldn't have had much time to react at all and it's possible it could have been even worse having a bear watch.
"Essentially no system is 100% guaranteed to be reliable and it was essentially weighing up the risk of having people standing outside in the cold."
He added: "Most encounters with polar bears are not fatal or even problematic. I am certainly aware that the behaviour of our bear charging into the campsite is completely abnormal."
Mr Ruck said that he was a late addition to the expedition team but had gained experienced by visiting the area as a YE with BSES in 2002 and underwent further training on arrival in Norway prior to the trip.
Matthew Burke, one of the young explorers (YE), described how he saw the bear slamming down on to Horatio as it attacked him.
Describing the incident, he said: "I sat upright to the screams of 'bear, bear'. I unzipped the inner and the front porch and I saw the bear at the front of Horatio's tent in the porch."
He said he then went out the back of the tent and saw Mr Reid aiming the rifle at the polar bear which was attacking a person he believed to be Horatio who was standing up in the porch of his tent.
He continued: "The bear reared up and then slammed itself down on to Horatio, it used its paws and slammed down on Horatio. Spike was trying to shoot the bear."
Mr Burke said he then went round to the outer tents and attempted to calm some of the other young explorers.
He then returned as the bear stopped attacking Mr Reid and turned on Mr Ruck before returning to attack Horatio who was only dressed in his boxers.
He added: "After Andy was on the ground, the bear walked back to the tent with Horatio in it and continued to attack someone there, the person was half-in half-out of the tent with the porch of the tent on top of him.
"The tent had fully collapsed when the bear slammed down, this person was on top of it. At this point (the bear) was biting and clawing (Horatio)."
Mr Burke said he then went into the leader's tent and pulled the rifle inside and unsuccessfully attempted to find some more bullets for it.
He continued: "At that point I gave up searching and went out the back of the tent, it was at that point the bear spotted me and it chased me around the leaders' tent and would change direction when I changed direction."
He said the bear then went after Scott Bennell Smith and knocked him to the ground before returning to Horatio's tent.
He continued: "The bear didn't see him (Scott) as a threat and went back to the first tent where it walked on top of the tent and it was clawing that tent. This is the point at which I believe Pat (Flinders) would have been injured.
"At this point Spike had got back to the rifle and fired the bullet. He took the shot and killed it."
He said he went immediately to Horatio's tent and added: "He was dead, there was no sign, he wasn't making any sound, wasn't moving, you could just kind of tell."
Rosanna Baker, from London, another member of Chanzin Fire, described how she managed to escape through the back entrance of her tent with tent-mate Louise Jane (LJ) Watts.
She said: "I woke up because I heard male voices screaming and shouting 'bear, bear'. I stood up in my tent next to LJ, she opened our front door, the porch and inner tent and I looked at her and she said 'It's true there's a bear'."
Miss Baker described how they got out of their sleeping bags before Mr Burke arrived and told them to stay in their tents.
But she said they decided to leave and, along with two other YEs, headed from the campsite.
She said: "We started to move the four of us away from the camp towards base camp direction, hoping we would be able to escape and raise the alarm."
She said she saw the bear pawing at Horatio's tent and also attacking Mr Bennell Smith.
She said: "I remember seeing Scott making a break from the front of his tent and the bear chasing him and clawing his back from behind."
She said her other main memory was seeing someone who may have been Horatio or Mr Ruck kneeling but not moving having suffered "very severe head and back injuries."
Miss Watts, of Dedham, Essex, told the inquest: "I heard shouts and screams of 'bear'.
"I unzipped the front of the tent to look out and I saw a bear on top of Horatio's tent.
"I then woke up Rosie and told her I thought there was a bear then I looked out again and saw a male kneeling at the end of their tent who I now know was Horatio with the bear on him. It was rearing up."
She said that as they were making their escape she saw "the bear on top of Horatio with Andy throwing rocks at it to distract it".
Describing the incident, group member Rebecca Millington, from London, said she saw someone who had been attacked by the bear who was standing in a "defensive position".
She said: "I heard screams, I remember being confused and thinking the screams were part of a dream.
"I remember sitting up and looking at the people I was sharing the tent with then I looked out of the front of the tent. I saw the bear on the tent next to me and someone standing up who had obvious head injuries.
"I zipped my tent back up, sat back and conferred briefly with my tent-mates and some moments later I opened the back of the tent facing away from the circle of the tent and looked out looking for an escape route and saw Matt Burke.
"He came over to talk to us and advised us to stay in the tent. I sat in the tent until I heard a shot."
The inquest was adjourned until tomorrow.