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Family tells of escape from flood-hit Brienz

Ursula and Marcel Santschi stand in front of their house in Brienz

(swissinfo.ch)

Residents have been picking up the pieces after flooding and mudslides transformed the picturesque Bernese Oberland village of Brienz into a wasteland.

swissinfo visited the lakeside village and spoke to the Santschi family, whose house remains buried under mud, about their dramatic escape and how they are coping.

The first the village knew of the mudslide was at 11.30pm on August 22, when the village's warning sirens were started. All the local volunteer fire officers – including Marcel Santschi – were ordered to report for duty.

His wife, Ursula, called her parents-in-law and asked them to come and pick up the couple's two children.

"And then the flood came: stones were flying around. Our house began to shake. I gave our little one to my mother-in-law and went to fetch Stephanie. Our car was probably the last one to leave the village," recalls Ursula.

Marcel was meanwhile helping to evacuate the area around the Glyssibach stream, the source of the mudslide. A second landslide followed just two hours later.

"It was unbelievable," Marcel tells swissinfo. "There was a rumbling noise and then within one or two seconds the whole streambed and an area covering several metres were filled with huge stones and a wall of mud up to eight metres high."

The mudslide destroyed eight houses completely and damaged 13 others. Two women were killed.

"The next morning my husband phoned me and said that he hadn't been to the house yet. He said I should in any case be prepared for the worst as the neighbouring houses were no longer there," says Ursula, who had spent the night on the nearby Brünigpass.

Safe and sound

Both husband and wife tell the dramatic story quietly but not without emotion. It is clear that they are happy and grateful that the family is safe and sound.

"The worst time is when you go to bed and you relax. During the day I'm busy with the kids, which means I can't show any tension or nervousness," says Ursula.

She says it's important to be strong. "We shouldn't look for any deeper reasons as to why this happened. It has happened, it was nature's will."

The Santschis are currently living in a one-room studio belonging to Marcel's parents. They do not know when they will be able to return home.

"Our house is still standing but it's buried under three metres of mud," says Marcel. "We don't know if it has moved but the top floor seems to still be intact."

The couple have been trying to have a closer look at their home for a week but the mud is so deep and glutinous that it is currently too dangerous.

Round-the-clock clearing-up work is continuing in the village, but there is so much to do that it could be a while before the Santschis will be able to see their house again.

Solidarity

Ursula and Marcel say they are pleased that the village has pulled together and shown great solidarity during these difficult times.

"You help each other as much as you can," says Marcel, who tells of residents offering drinks and refreshments to the voluntary fire officers as they go about their work.

"A lady in the village emergency centre said that she had the same clothes size as me and did I need any help," adds Ursula. Clothing and nappies for the couple's two girls were also quickly organised.

The Santschis are full of praise for the local authorities who reacted promptly and were well organised, and for the fact that doctors and pastors were soon on the scene to help out.

They do not expect that every problem will be resolved quickly and they know that some mistakes will be made. "Most people understand this and are happy that everything is going so well," says Ursula.

The family meanwhile intends to make good use of the time remaining before they can inspect the damage to their house.

"I just want to be there for my family. We would also like to go to [the nearby town of] Interlaken, just to get away from the rubble here," explains Marcel.

"In addition we also now finally have the opportunity to talk to each other, to think about our situation and look a little bit to the future," adds Ursula.

swissinfo, Etienne Strebel in Brienz

Key facts

Peter Flück, the head of the village authorities in Brienz, is coordinating a 250-strong team made up from the army, the emergency services and private individuals.
It is a major clean-up operation. Lorries full of mud and rubble leave the village in regular intervals.

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