A Brighton student has told of his desperate fight for survival in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which has claimed thousands of lives in southern America.

Neil Coffey, a student at City College Brighton and Hove, spent days trapped in the Louisiana Superdome, a place described as a "hell on earth" in the aftermath of the USA's worst natural disaster.

Rhiannon Davies, from Brighton, is also reported to have been trapped in the sports stadium with up to 25,000 other survivors who crammed into the Superdome to escape Katrina's devastating power.

Mr Coffey spoke to The Argus after arriving back at Gatwick with hundreds of other exhausted and emotional survivors as American officials confirmed thousands were feared dead.

The hurricane swept through America's deep south, flattening buildings and swamping much of the region under a deluge of water as levees in the low-lying states burst their banks.

Many were told to take refuge in the Superdome to escape as the hurricane approached but survivors such as Mr Coffey and Ms Davies then discovered to their horror that their ordeal was far from over.

Mr Coffey, 35, said he faced daily threats from gangs and saw death and chaos engulf the Superdome where American authorities lost control leaving survivors at the mercy of lawless mobs who have been blamed for rapes, muggings and even murder.

Mr Coffey said he witnessed suicides, gang riots and shootings as well as a tragic accident, which happened when a rescue bus taking residents away from their devastated home town crashed and flipped on its roof, killing at least one person and injuring many more.

These were people who had survived the destruction of Katrina's 160mph winds which led to flooding of the city on August 29, killing thousands and wrecking millions of homes.

Mr Coffey, of Vale Drive, Horsham, a photography student, was in New Orleans at the end of an eight-week tour of America when he heard reports of the storm about to hit the city.

He was told the Superdome was the only place he could go but did not realise he would join more than 25,000 other refugees in a desperate fight to stay alive.

He said: "It was absolute hell on earth. Nothing that has been in the papers has been dramatised at all.

"It was a complete nightmare and it was very traumatic.

"I was with lots of travellers that I had met in the youth hostel I had been staying in. We all felt really vulnerable and intimidated because gangs of people would stare at you and come and ask you for food and water. We gave them everything they asked for because we were scared.

"Some of the girls in our group got grabbed by people and they felt really threatened. Within six hours of the hurricane hitting you went into the toilets and people had defecated everywhere, so you can imagine what it was like after a few days.

"We all huddled together and tried to look after each other.

"We gathered other international people and in the end there were 103 of us. We thought there would be safety in numbers.

"It was unbelievably hot and the smell made you feel sick. We must have breathed in so much bacteria, I will have to get myself checked by a doctor.

We just stayed there for three days solid, the lighting was really bad and you couldn't see daylight.

"I was woken up at one point because a man just in front of me had jumped off the balcony and committed suicide. I could see the body on the floor below.

"There was a second body later on who had apparently committed suicide as well.

"It was a shock to see things like that. There were lots of families and children and it was really noisy. Everyone was screaming and shouting at each other. It was quite a hysterical atmosphere.

"Everyone was too scared to sleep. I wanted to keep my wits about me just in case something happened. There were so many gangs with knives and guns.

"Once I heard gun shots and someone shouting: 'Soldier down, soldier down.' Then a soldier was carried through who had been shot in the leg. We heard about a 13-year-old girl who had been raped and another shooting.

"It was like being in a third world prison, we were not allowed to leave and we couldn't escape. My phone was the only one that had reception before after the storm so everyone was using it to text and phone people.

"We knew our families would be really worried.

"There were only 250 troops but there were 25,000 people, they just didn't have a chance to keep control. One sergeant was trying to do his best for us but it was really difficult. Some of the soldiers were only 19 or 20.

"In the end he went against his orders to get us into the medical centre next door, which was a basketball stadium. It was still dangerous but it was a little bit better. There were families just sleeping in the corridors and you had to step over them.

"All of us were helping the staff with the sick people, fanning them to keep them cool or helping to lift the fragile onto beds. We were there for 24 hours.

"Then I fell asleep and someone woke me up saying, 'quick, quick, they're letting us go'. It was still dangerous because there were snipers on the roads so we had to travel 50 at a time in covered fruit and veg trucks to the Hyatt hotel.

"That wasn't much better and we were there another 30 hours. There was no electricity when we arrived and we had to sit on the concrete floor and we were told not to make any noise in case someone found us.

"Finally they brought buses to take us to Dallas because Houston was too full apparently.

"I was woken up again because the bus in front with lots of people from New Orleans crashed and flipped over. One person died.

"It was terrible. They had survived the hurricane and the Superdome and then this happened.

"It was amazing to reach the Texan state line because a church group had set up hot food and clothing for people. It was such a relief to see civilisation again.

"We met with people from the British Embassy when we got to Dallas. They said they had hotels for us but they asked everyone for $80. At that point people got really upset and annoyed because we had been through so much.

"The next day they retracted that comment about having to pay. I think they realised how ridiculous it was. They arranged flights for us all and I arrived back at Gatwick at about 7am yesterday.

"I was lucky everyone stuck together, I met some amazing people and we will stay in touch. I did fear for my life in there and thought there was a possibility we would never get out."

More people are expected to return to Gatwick this morning after fleeing the flood-ravaged region.