TITANIC expert Steve Rigby nearly joined 1,500 lost souls in a watery grave after two submarines collided two and a half miles beneath the Atlantic.

The Lowton postman's brush with death happened during a six-hour underwater inspection of the famous wreck he knows so well.

The journey to the bottom of the sea saw Steve's life-long dream come true after he won a £25,000 SubSea Explorer competition.

The crash happened as the submarine in which he was travelling, Mir 1, was on a tour of the wreck, and was struck by Mir 2.

Steve said: "The Russian pilot, decided to take us down the side of the ship along the portholes, but unfortunately, Mir 2 was coming up at the same time and we collided. That is the last thing you want when you're two and half miles under water. It could have been the quickest death imaginable."

Despite the incident, Steve, 42, of Durrell Way, Lowton, secretary of the British Titanic Society, was thrilled by the sight the subject he has studied since he was eight.

He said: "The wreck was certainly bigger than I expected, but as you see it, every emotion goes through you. All the stories come to life, including the women and children boarding the lifeboats and leaving the men behind.

"Most poignant was seeing a pair of women's shoes in the debris field, along with hundreds of tiles and pieces of crockery -- and the bow featured in the hit film."

The trip did not get off to a good start. Steve flew with other competition winners to St John's, Newfoundland, and on arrival, discovered his luggage, containing two memorial plaques, was still at Heathrow.

After frantic calls, it turned up just in time after being re-routed via St John's Halifax, instead of Newfoundland.

Steve said: "Thankfully it turned up 15 minutes before we were due to set sail on the Russian research ship, The Academic Keldish. I only had the jeans and T-shirt I stood up in, but I was more worried about the plaques from the Titanic Society, and the Communication Workers' Union I was carrying to place on the wreck, as well as camera equipment."

The day after setting sail, he entered the mini sub, Mir 1, with the Russian pilot and the grandson of a survivor, Philip Littlejohn. It took them two hours 20 minutes to travel the two and a half miles to the seabed.

A thrilled Steve said: "We landed on the officers' quarters of the Titanic and moved to the bridge area and had a look at the ship's wheel, sailed over to the bow and then moved back along the centre line of the mast.

"We could see the crow's nest from where the iceberg was spotted and went back around one of the lifeboat davits which held lifeboat number two.

"Philip wanted to see where lifeboat 13, in which his grandfather survived, would be. I knew, so we went as near as we could. It was very moving for him.

"We moved on to the bridge area and placed the plaques in front of the ship's wheel with mechanical hands.

"We sailed on to the stern section which was 1,000ft away, and a real mess. It had imploded on the way down, but we saw the starboard propeller and came back over the poop deck where passengers had gathered, the last spot they could cling on to before going down. I was giving all the commentary because I have studied the ship inside out."

He said: "The six hours seemed like six seconds, but it was out of this world.

"Several thousand people have been into space, but I was only the 62nd person to dive that deep.

"Out of the nine-day trip we only spent 11 hours on the sub but it was just fantastic. The rest of the time we attended lectures.

"My knowledge astounded the organisers so much that I've been asked to be an historian on the next trip. I can't wait." INTREPID EXPLORERS: Titanic expert Steve Rigby (left) with the Russian pilot and Philip Littlejohn, whose grandfather survived the disaster in lifeboat 13, in front of the sub, Mir 1. Below, the bow of the famous wreck : Steve's picture of the bow, made famous in the recent film