Canyoning trial underway in Interlaken

The trial has begun at Interlaken's casino Keystone

The first defendant to take the stand in the Interlaken canyoning trial has admitted that the guides had no written safety guidelines in case of storms.

This content was published on December 3, 2001 - 15:10

The trial opened in the ornate ballroom of the Casino Kursaal Congress Centre, which accommodates the dozens of journalists and members of the public attending the trial.

Bromwyn Smith, mother of one of the victims, who has essentially represented all the victims' relatives as a private litigant, testified on Monday about her loss.

Smith, of Adelaide, Australia, fought back tears as she told the court that her life and her family's had been destroyed by the death of her 19-year-old daughter, Briana, in the 1999 canyoning accident, in which 21 people were killed. Fourteen of the victims were from Australia.

When asked if any of the defendants had tried to contact her after the accident to apologise, she replied, "They were too pathetic and gutless to do so."

Defendant outlines procedures

She was followed in the stand by the first defendant, Stephan Friedli, who was president of the board of management of Adventure World at the time of the accident.

The charges against him include "allowing a canyoning trip to be led into the Saxet Brook without having worked out a set of safety provisions" particularly during thunderstorms. He is also accused of "inadequately supervising the general managers and lead guides of Adventure World."

Friedli admitted he was aware that a thunderstorm could cause a rapid and dangerous rise in the water level of the Saxet Brook, "within 10 to 15 minutes", he said. However, he added that a storm brewing over the valley did not necessarily mean an expedition could not go ahead.

Friedli gave a detailed outline of the safety procedures that guides had to follow before going ahead with an expedition, including a check of the level of the water, its colour and rate of rise.

Unwritten guidelines

Under cross-examination from the cantonal prosecutor, he admitted that these were verbal guidelines only.

The questioning also focused on Adventure World's decision to introduce written guidelines only the year following the accident, which included a chapter on weather precautions.

Friedli distanced himself from any responsibility for the accident, saying he was in charge of administration and had full confidence in Adventure World's general managers, who made the most important decisions on expeditions.

He refused to answer many of the questions about safety measures, referring them to the general managers.

He ended his testimony by saying that to his knowledge the wall of water that broke through the canyon killing the 21 people could not have been foreseen and was unavoidable.

The eight defendants in the trial include three directors of the company, two guides who survived, the "lead guide" who authorised the trip, and two guide instructors. They are charged with allowing the canyoning trip to proceed despite a visible thunderstorm.

According to prosecutors, they failed to guide the vacationers to the safety of land even though the water level was rising because of the storm.

The trial continues until December 11.

by Dale Bechtel in Interlaken

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