An independent report into a British schoolboy’s death on Svalbard in 2011, when he was mauled to death by a polar bear, found critical faults in the alarm system set up to protect his group. The report was released this week to coincide with an inquest being held into the tragedy that killed 17-year-old Horatio Chapple.
The Eton schoolboy was part of a British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) trip in August 2011. The bear broke into their camp one night without setting off the perimeter trip wire, tore open Chapple’s tent, and dragged him out inflicting deadly injuries to his head and upper body. Four others were injured before the bear was shot dead by one of the group leaders.
BSES commissioned former high court judge Sir David Steel to investigate the death, reported UK newspaper The Guardian. It concluded there were pieces missing from the trip wire alarm system, which was of a kind used by gamekeepers to protect bird pens. Paper clips had been used to fasten the mechanism together, but they were neither sturdy enough nor the right shape to work. The group knew the system was faulty: One of the members had tripped over the wire a few days earlier, but the alarm had not gone off.
Steel concluded that training in the use of the 80-year-old Mauser 98 K rifle the group carried as protection against bears had also been inadequate. The safety catch had been left in a position that disabled the firing mechanism, meaning the bullets simply fell to the ground the first four times the gun was fired.
“The expedition’s science leader (identified in the report as L2) emerged from another tent,” Steel wrote. “He grabbed the rifle and fired four or five times. On each occasion a bullet was simply ejected on to the ground leaving the rifle empty. The bear then turned on L2 and mauled him about the head, causing him to drop the gun.”
“The mountain leader of the expedition (identified as L1) did not know where the spare bullets were and shouted for help in finding them,” Steel continued. “He diverted the bear from L2 by throwing a stone at it. The bear turned on L1 and mauled him badly. Other team members were attacked by the bear until L2 found one of the bullets that had been ejected, loaded the rifle and shot the animal dead.”
While Steel said it was uncertain if correct rifle storage could have saved Chapple’s life, it would likely have led to fewer injuries among the rest of the group. Furthermore, the report found no one had been put on bear guard duty, despite drifting pack ice along the coastline and bear sightings in the area. The tents were in a circle which can make a passing bear feel trapped, rather than the best practice line formation.
An examination of the bear found it was 24 years old, weighed only 250 kilograms instead of the usual 400 kilograms, and had very worn teeth. Steel concluded that it was a “rare occurrence of an intrusion of a starving polar bear into a camp situated well inland in Svalbard. It was a remote possibility but not unforeseeable. The chosen method of protection in the form of a trip-wire system was entirely in accord with advice of the Norwegian authorities and industry practice. But it was defective in terms of missing pieces of equipment. In any event, with hindsight it is not in fact an adequate substitute for a bear watch which, if established, would have been likely to warn of the approach of the bear in time to prevent the attack.”
Parents believed their son would be safe
Olivia and David Chapple told the inquest, which began in their home town of Salisbury on Monday, that they were worried about the possibility of a polar bear attack. They’d read the trip’s risk assessment procedure, and believed Horatio would get a personal flare, a working trip wire would be set up around the camp, and weapons would be carried by trip leaders. They also believed a “bear watch” was a routine measure.
However, a flare shortage meant only the leaders were equipped with them, there weren’t enough stakes to set up the wire, pieces to trigger the device were missing, and there were too few perimeter mines.
“We believed that the staff at BSES would do as they said and act responsibly to protect the children under their care,” David Chapple told the hearing, The Guardian reported. “We were never told the bear trip-wires only sometimes work. The risk assessment refers to flares being available to all members of the expedition.”
“The steps within the section I believed at face value, that they were going to do as they had undertaken to do in the risk assessment,” Olivia Chapple said. “Otherwise, no parent or nobody would want to go on an expedition where a risk was categorized as likely yet the planning wasn’t there. The trip was an expensive trip, I believed that they would have proper equipment. I thought Horatio would have a bear flare, I thought they would have things like bear spray. I believed that the camp would be protected by trip-wire. I was naive, I had no idea how a campsite should be set up at that stage.
Expedition leader Richard Payne said the plan was to give all explorers a flare, but it was only when they arrived at base camp that he discovered there weren’t enough. He’d modified the trip wire from its original fishing line to a fluorescent cord, because the first system was going off too easily. He said the equipment hadn’t been properly checked, and the missing pieces were only discovered when it was unpacked.
When asked by the assistant coroner if he was happy with the trip’s safety overall, Payne said his only concern was that they didn’t have four perimeter mines, meaning the tents had to be pitched in a triangle formation. “The three mines was the only downside, otherwise I was happy,” he said. “I have been camping in the Arctic for over 52 weeks and in all that time I haven’t had a single polar bear encounter. I have never seen one, and to have one in that area at that time of year and for it to behave as it did was totally out of character.”
Recommendations taken on board
The chair of BSES, now known as British Exploring, reiterated the company’s sympathies to the Chapple family. Edward Watson told The Guardian they had implemented all recommendations in the Steel report.
“Amongst other things, we have drawn up a new standard operating procedure (SOP) relating to protection against predatory and wild animals in polar regions, he said. “The SOP includes a mandatory bear watch in all camps (a stipulation which exceeds what is required by Norwegian law), and the use of a new alarm system, which British Exploring has helped develop.”
The inquest was due to run all week.