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'Explorer' survivor lands back in Belfast

Raymond believed he was heading for watery grave when ship hit iceberg

By Claire McNeilly

The Ulster grandfather who survived for hours in the freezing waters of the Antarctic Ocean before being rescued has told of how he thought of the Titanic disaster as the drama unfolded around him.

East Belfast man Raymond King was travelling on the MS Explorer when it was ripped open by an iceberg in the Bransfield Strait in the early hours of last Friday morning.

The 67-year-old retired headmaster, who arrived home to a relieved family last night, was among 150 passengers and crew to escape alive after braving -5C temperatures for up to four desperate hours in open lifeboats before the Norwegian ship NordNorge rescued them.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night after a gruelling 27-hour journey home from Chile, Mr King said that he was still "on a high" after the harrowing experience - but admitted that thoughts of a watery grave had crossed his mind.

"It made me think of the Titanic, in a way," he said.

"The quantity of ice, the lifeboats and all the rest of it. There were a lot of icebergs around us and our lifeboat was actually resting against one for some time.

"But thank goodness; it could have been a watery grave for all of us.

"It only needed a few things to be worse. If the ships hadn't come so quickly, if the wind had been stronger, if the sea had been rougher, then we would have been in a lot of trouble."

Mr King, a seasoned explorer who has made adventure trips to Nepal, Central America and New Zealand, expressed his extreme disappointment at not fulfilling his ambition to visit the Antarctic Peninsula, after the disaster left him 75 miles short of his goal. But he also categorically ruled out a repeat attempt.

"I will go exploring again, but I don't think I'll be going back there," he said.

"I am disappointed that I didn't set foot on the Peninsula. It has always been an ambition of mine, but I've had enough of the Antarctic."

The former principal of Monkstown Community School also described the dark, silent moments in the lifeboat before he was rescued.

"There was no conversation. People were occupied with their own thoughts," he recalled.

"There were about 30 of us in the lifeboat. It was freezing. We were bobbing up and down in the water and it actually felt somehow surreal. We were sucked into the waves. I thought it was all happening to someone else.

"A few times, I didn't think I'd ever see home again. I was thinking of my family, as well as all the young people on the ship. There was no time for deep, philosophical thoughts. My family was going through my mind."

He added: "It wasn't fear I was feeling. It was anxiety. But I really thought it could be the end for me."

There were emotional scenes at George Best Airport last night as Mr King was reunited with his wife, Muriel (63), and sons, Andrew (32) and Philip (29) - after a few moments of panic when the brave voyager initially failed to see his welcome party.

"I'm still on a bit of a high - like all of us," he said, adding that he was delighted to be surrounded by his family.

And although he lost almost all of his possessions after abandoning the sinking ship, Mr King admitted that he didn't go entirely empty-handed.

"I rescued my pipe," he said.

"I also took a photo of my family and my camera, although I couldn't remember where I put my memory card, so I don't have any photos."

Speaking to this newspaper, his wife Muriel said she was absolutely delighted to have him back safe and sound.

"It's great having him home," she said.

"I can't believe he has survived this. Raymond and the other passengers and crew are very lucky to be alive."

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