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Families gather to remember canyoning victims

An Australian plays the "didgeridoo" at the unveiling of a memorial last December to remember the canyoning victims. Keystone / Alessandro della Valle

A year after 21 people were killed during a canyoning trip in Switzerland, the families of the victims are attending a private memorial service on Thursday outside Interlaken, above the gorge where the tragedy occurred.

This content was published on July 27, 2000 - 11:35

Around 100 relatives of the victims - most of whom were Australian - are attending the ceremony in Wilderswil. The service is taking place above the Saxet Gorge, where the tragedy occurred exactly one year ago.

On July 27, 1999, a group of canyoning enthusiasts set out to traverse the gorge in the Bernese Oberland. There seemed no reason to think the trip would be anything other than a routine "adventure".

The group was following a well-trodden route, and the expedition was organised by a well-known company, Adventure World, which specialised in so-called "extreme sports".

The canyoners were making their way through the gorge, when it started to rain. Within minutes, the stream that winds its way through the gorge became a raging torrent. The canyoners were swept away.

After an intensive search and rescue mission, 21 people were confirmed dead - 14 Australians, one New Zealander, two South Africans, two Swiss, and two people from Britain. Three of the victims were guides. One of the bodies still hasn't been recovered.

The shock of the tragedy soon gave way to outrage and demands for accountability. The sports minister, Adolf Ogi - this year's Swiss president - called for stricter controls over the training and safety of extreme sports.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, an investigation was launched to determine whether the five guides who survived the accident were criminally responsible.

The key questions were whether the guides knew a storm was approaching, but still went ahead with the trip, and whether they knew - or should have known - that flash floods were common in the gorge during storms.

The investigation was subsequently widened to two managers and three board members of Adventure World to determine whether they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The company's bosses defended themselves and their guides against allegations of recklessness. They said they had plenty of experience, and the accident had been a freak of nature that gave them no warning.

The company has since closed its doors, following the death of a bungy jumper in May, who was attached to a rope that was too long.

A year after the canyoning disaster, the investigation is still continuing. The magistrate says the delay is due to the size and complexity of the case. The relatives of the victims have agreed to wait until the investigation is concluded before deciding whether to proceed with legal action.

The tragedy has also raised questions about the regulation of extreme sports. No laws exist at present and the industry is resisting the imposition of mandatory rules, saying voluntary guidelines are sufficient.

The disaster has taken its toll on the business of extreme sports, with some operators saying bookings are down by as much as 30 per cent.

However, a visit by a swissinfo reporter to Interlaken this week revealed that visitors in search of adventure are still queuing up for a chance to take on the challenges of the Saxet Gorge.

by Jonas Hughes

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