Polar Bear Paw Print Found Just Days Prior To Deadly Attack On British Schoolboy

WARNING: Some readers may find an image in this article distressing

A 17-year-old schoolboy mauled to death by a polar bear during an adventure holiday had found a paw print just two days prior to the lethal attack, an inquest has heard.

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 trip leader Michael "Spike" Reid, from Plymouth, Devon, Andrew Ruck, from Brighton, Patrick Flinders, from Jersey, and Scott Bennell-Smith, from St Mellion in Cornwall.

Lauren Beech, from Guildford, Surrey, told the Salisbury inquest that Horatio had found a bear print in the ground just two days before the attack. And she said that she also found out after the incident that the local authorities had issued a warning about increased polar bear activities in recent months before the attack.

Describing the paw print discovery on August 3, she said: "That was the day that Horatio noticed the prints of the polar bear. We were advised by the leader they were approximately two to four days old and they were facing in the direction of base camp.

"I remember there was more than one there, one was very distinct and I remember several of us taking photos with this print."

She added: "It may make me sound naive but I remember thinking 'Wow, it's a polar bear footprint' but I do not remember it making me any more worried."

She continued: "I had heard rumours another group had seen a polar bear but I was aware of the fact that apparently there had been a warning issued by the authorities in Svalbard that there was heightened activity of bear but I wasn't aware of that."

Miss Beech said that she had been concerned about the tripwire and said she did not consider it to be "very robust".

She also questioned the leaders' action of asking the group for their views on whether a bear watch should be held on the night before the attack.

She said: "The leaders laid out why they thought a bear watch wasn't required, they said it was a low risk area.

"The decision was pushed out to the Fire, I couldn't understand at the time as a 16-year-old and a young person I had no knowledge of the area and I put my complete trust in the leaders' knowledge."

She said that Mr Bennell-Smith had proposed that there should have been a bear watch but the decision had rested with the leaders.

Four others were hurt before the bear was shot dead at the camp site

Miss Beech said that she had also been concerned when they had briefly lost contact with a member of the party at the back of the group during one of the treks during the trip.

Miss Beech said that she had remained in her tent during the bear attack but had seen the white fur of the bear within metres of the tent when her tent-mate had briefly opened the front opening.

She said: "I heard growls of the bear along with other shouts and screams. I was very distressed and I do not think I had any idea of the time scale."

Mr Bennell-Smith, who was 16 at the time, told the inquest that he was lying asleep in the same tent as Horatio and Mr Flinders when the bear attacked, and was woken by "shaking of the tent".

He said: "I felt as if we all woke up at the same time, initially when the tent was shaking I felt someone may have been shaking it to wake us up."

He said that he realised they were under attack "when the bear came out the top of the tent".

He continued: "The material of the tent roof collapsed over all three of us and I could feel the presence of the bear over all of us. I could feel the size of it and see its paws.

"When the material collapsed over me I couldn't see what was happening so I do not know if Horatio was still under the cover of the material but I think I was and I think Pat was.

"From what I remember I think we were all shouting the same thing, shouting for Spike, shouting for Andy, shouting for help."

Mr Bennell-Smith, who is now 20, continued: "The material had all ripped, it had fallen about either side of us. I saw the bear attacking someone, I thought at the time it was (one of the young explorers) Matt Burke, I think it was right in the centre of the camp, biting (him) in the head.

"I just put my head down again and tried to stay still basically then I could just hear the bear moving around the camp, just heard commotion.

"I remember someone asking Spike what they should do and I remember someone calling out where the bullets were and, I am not exactly sure of the order, Pat was making noises, I wasn't sure whether the bear was back on him at this point then I realised the bear had come out and was attacking Pat, then I got out of my sleeping bag and tried to run away from it."

Mr Bennell-Smith said that he now believed the man being attacked was not Mr Burke but was in fact Mr Reid.

Horatio Chapple died on an adventure holiday to the remote Svalbard islands

He said it was at this point that he was attacked by the bear and said: "After the bear attacked me, I moved away and then I couldn't see anything else that was going on, soon after I heard the shot and saw in my peripheral vision the bear go down."

He said that he had not seen Horatio being attacked in the tent by the bear.

Mr Bennell-Smith said that he had joked with the group about the practicality of the tripwire used as an early warning system.

The system has been criticised in the inquest for having missing components and for working inconsistently. Mr Bennell-Smith said that he had questioned the purpose of it as an early warning because of its proximity to the tent.

Mr Flinders, who was one of those injured, told the inquest that he was in the same tent as Horatio when the bear attacked.

He said: "I heard rustling on the tent - when I first heard it I thought it was others in the group messing around then the tent collapsed a couple of seconds later.

"Once the tent collapsed I got into a little ball and I moved myself over to Scott and I am not sure if Horatio got himself out of the tent or not.

"I thought I would peek out to see what was happening, I could see the bear with who I thought was one of the leaders, Spike, by the head. It was coming away from one of their tents."

Timothy Child, another member of the group, said that he saw Horatio being knocked to the ground by the bear and not move again until after the incident was over.

Giving evidence to the inquest by video-link from Austria, he also described how he saw the bear attack another member of the group and dragging them out of their tent.

He said: "I have a clear recollection of them being dragged out, they were in a more of a crouching position with the bear around the shoulder area.

The bear that killed Horatio Chapple was sent to examiners

"At one point the person stood up and the bear reared up as well and knocked the person to the ground.

"It was much bigger and taller, it was in an upright position which means its paws were in the air and it came forward and knocked the person down, I do not know if it used its paws or its mouth."

He said that he then left the tent and with others managed to escape from the campsite until he heard the shot fired that killed the bear.

Mr Child told the inquest that he believed the polar bear footprint found between their camp and the base camp had been found about four days prior to the attack as they were taking an injured member of the party back to the base camp.

Assistant Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon Ian Singleton said that he would no longer be calling, Wale Olarinde, a consultant ear, nose and throat, head and neck surgeon to give evidence tomorrow following accounts given to the inquest about how Horatio was attacked.

Mr Singleton said he had not heard any evidence, apart from Mr Child, suggesting that Horatio was dragged from his tent or that Horatio had stood up again after being attacked.

He explained that the consultant had been due to be asked for his opinion about how the injuries suffered by Horatio fitted with these previous accounts which were not repeated in the inquest.

He said: "I have not heard any evidence that would cause me think that Horatio having stood up, been attacked by the bear then stood up again. I am not aware of Horatio being dragged out of the tent."

Another member of the group, Yaroslav Kinebas said: "I woke up hearing either yells or screams outside the tent and Matt (Burke) and Tim (Child) waking up in the tent as well. I think I woke up a few seconds after them.

"Matt unzipped the front of the tent and I saw a glimpse of a partial or fully flattened tent and then we zipped up the front of the tent and went out the back.

"Once we got out the back, I looked over and saw the bear and it looked like it was standing over the back of someone and that person was already on the floor.

"The bear was at the entrance of the tent which was closest to mine. It was rearing up on its hind legs and bearing down on the ground."

He said that he managed to escape out of the immediate area and when he returned after the incident he saw Horatio "half lying on the flattened tent".

He added: "I could see that he was dead straight away."

The inquest was adjourned until tomorrow.