Eton schoolboy polar bear death: Svalbard expedition leader ‘gouged bear’s eyes as it bit his head’, inquest hears

Bear turned on trip leader Michael Reid after it had killed 17-year-old Horatio Chapple

A leader on the Arctic expedition in which Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple was killed by a polar bear has said he tried to gouge out the animal’s eyes after it started attacking the teenagers in his care.

Speaking at an inquest into the death of the 17-year-old, Michael Reid said he first tried to shoot the bear when it was on top of one of the boys taking part in the adventure holiday in August 2011.

But when his gun failed and the bear turned on him, the leader said he tried to “take out its eyes” as it bit him on the head.

The trip, organised by the British Schools Exploring Society to the remote Svalbard islands in the Arctic Ocean, ended in tragedy when the starving bear ripped open a tent and dragged out Horatio, causing fatal injuries to his head and upper body.

Mr Reid was also seriously injured in the attack, as 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.

Today Mr Reid described how he was woken up that night by people shouting “bear” and “bear attack”.

Read more: Horatio Chapple killed 'after camp safety measures failed'

He said he left his tent carrying his rifle and was met with a chaotic scene, with the bear on top of one of the boys still in his sleeping bag.

“I cocked the rifle, took aim, aimed it carefully as I didn't want to shoot the YE (young explorer), 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 inquest has heard that the Mauser 98K rifle had a three-position safety catch mechanism, of which Mr Reid was unaware, and that the rifle may have been set to the position that causes rounds to be ejected instead of fired.

Picture released by the District Governor of Spitsbergen's office shows the dead male polar bear which had attacked youths who were camping on a remote Arctic glacier as part of a high-end adventure holiday at Spitsbergen, Svalbard archipelago, in Norway, Friday, Aug. 5, 2011 (AP) Picture released by the District Governor of Spitsbergen's office shows the dead male polar bear which had attacked youths who were camping on a remote Arctic glacier as part of a high-end adventure holiday at Spitsbergen, Svalbard archipelago, in Norway, Friday, Aug. 5, 2011 (AP) Mr Reid threw his rifle to the ground beside him and shouted for others to use pen flares to help scare the bear off – at which point it turned on him.

“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,” he said.

“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, shooting the animal dead.

Mr Reid said he had no recollection of seeing Horatio during the incident but went on to pay tribute to the teenager as “a fine young gentleman with amazing potential”.

He said: “He was a member of our team, one of the best if not the best in the whole expedition.”

Mr Reid, 31, went on to say that while a bear watch could have been held on the night of the attack, it was believed at the time that it would have left the team tired and vulnerable to cold-related illness on the long trek planned for the next day.

He said the expedition had been supplied with an incomplete tripwire system, meaning the group had to improvise using a triangle formation and paper clips to replace missing brass fittings.

Additional reporting by PA

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