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Families of Canyoning victims speak of grief

Gary Redmond, speaking during a ceremony one year ago Keystone Archive

Relatives of some of the 21 victims of the canyoning accident near Interlaken two and a half years ago have spoken out on the eve of the trial, which got underway on Monday.

This content was published on December 3, 2001 - 08:53

In an emotional address to the media in Interlaken on Sunday, Bill Peel, the father of one of the 14 Australian victims, spoke of his decision to fly from Australia to Switzerland for the trial.

"I want to look at the accused in the eye and let them know that we have never ever thought it was an accident," Peel said, "and [let] the Swiss people [know] that we believe very strongly that the accused should be put on trial."

Eight former managers and Canyoning guides from the now defunct company, Adventure World, are charged with manslaughter through culpable negligence following the deaths of 21 people.

They were swept away to their deaths by a wall of water resulting from a thunderstorm.

Ignoring storm warnings

The eight defendants are charged with ignoring storm warnings, failing to have worked out a set of safety provisions and providing inadequate supervision and guide training. They face fines or jail sentences up to one year.

The prosecution alleges that the Adventure World guides went ahead with the trip even though a storm had broken over the area. Prosecutors said it could be seen from the starting point of the canyoning expedition, and the guides were not properly instructed "concerning the dangers that can result from a thunderstorm".

Peel said he and his wife had driven to the scene of the accident earlier on Sunday, but the painful memories kept them from getting out of the car for a closer look.

Following the loss of their son, Peel said he was unable to continue operating his private business and his wife Sandra developed an incurable illness.

Bruce and Sue Tout also lost a son in the accident and are among the 14 relatives to travel to Switzerland for the trial.

"Our son's body is there [in the canyon]," said Bruce Tout. "We feel he'll never return. He's trapped here in Switzerland, so we had to come to see what is going to happen at the trial. We hope the right decision is made by the judge and we'll abide by it."

Make extreme sports safer

Peel said the families' main aim is to make "extreme sports safer and if we can save one life, well, Billy (his son) hasn't died in vain."

Gary Redmond of Perth, Australia, told swissinfo by telephone why he and his wife have decided not to come to Switzerland.

"I don't feel that my attendance at the trial will give me any degree of satisfaction," he said. "It will not be able to satisfy me adequately, irrespective of the outcome, because nothing could ever take away the suffering and loss of losing a child."

Redmond has made four trips to Switzerland in the past two years - the last time in July when he assisted in the creation of a memorial park to the victims near the scene of the accident. He described that occasion as a positive experience.

Deterrent to future travellers

"I hope in some ways the memorial park will act as a deterrent to future travellers and backpackers who go up there to do canyoning," he said. "They have to pass that point. Some of them will stop and reflect and have a look at the park and look at the memorial board and think back to those 21 people who lost their lives doing the activity that they are about to embark on.

"Maybe some of them will have the opportunity to ask the question, 'Do I really need to do this?' or perhaps more pertinently, consider the conditions under which they are going to embark on the canyoning trip: 'Is the weather safe? Are the conditions safe? Have I had a change of heart? Do I now not want to go and if so, can I say to the tour operator, I don't want to do this now, I want to withdraw'.

"These are some of the things that were not afforded the 21 young people that day back in July 1999," he added.

The relatives are being represented at the trial by a Swiss lawyer and the Victims' Aid Centre of canton Bern.

One of the victim's families has been put forward as a private litigant at the trial, necessary, according to Swiss law, so that all the families of the victims can receive financial compensation in case of a guilty verdict.

by Dale Bechtel

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