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Judge hears closing statements in canyoning trial

Survivor Rachel O'Brien speaks to the press after testifying in the canyoning trial swissinfo.ch

The canyoning trial in Interlaken entered its decisive phase on Monday.

This content was published on December 10, 2001 - 18:56

The judge, Thomas Zbinden, is faced with a difficult decision. After hearing the pleas from the prosecution and defence, he will have to decide whether any of the eight defendants of the now defunct Adventure World company were guilty of manslaughter through culpable negligence.

The charges were laid after 21 people on a Canyoning expedition were swept to their deaths by a wall of water which swept through the Saxet Brook outside Interlaken two and a half years ago.

There were no laws or common guidelines at the time governing the actions of companies leading Canyoning tours.

During the first five days of the trial, the Adventure World managers and guides gave convincing testimony as to their and their company's professionalism.

Expert witnesses confirmed that Adventure World, as far as the company's safety practices and guide training were concerned, was at least as good as those of anyone else in the Canyoning business.

Lack of knowledge or arrogance

Judge Zbinden will have to decide whether through a lack of meteorological knowledge, or arrogance, the managers and guides let the trip go ahead even though a thunderstorm had broken out over the Saxet Valley.

The defendants claim the former. They said it was possible to enter a canyon during a storm as long as the conditions in the brook itself allowed. They said the water colour and water level were of paramount importance, and a check did not lead them to expect the sudden appearance of a wall of water.

They were supported by two expert witnesses who said no one could have expected such a natural phenomenon, based on the level of knowledge at the time.

Saturated catchment area

What was known was that the brook's catchment area, located above the tree line, was saturated and could not soak up any more water. About 20 mountain tributaries feed the Saxet Brook.

Based on this knowledge, other experts taking the stand said the defendants acted arrogantly by ignoring the weather situation in the catchment area, where the storm first broke.

This was enough for the other Canyoning outfitter working in the Saxet Brook at the time to put an end to his Canyoning tours for the day.

A policeman, who is also a Canyoning expert, said the first and most important rule for any Canyoning guide is to never enter the water during a storm. All storms are unpredictable, he said.

Describing the high wave that killed the 21 people, the local fire chief said a sudden and large rise in the water level, causing flooding, occurred on an annual basis.

He said just because no one had ever seen the type of high wave break through the narrow part of the gorge where the accident occurred, didn't mean it hadn't happened before the accident.

Following her testimony on Friday, the only survivor to take the stand told the media how she and the other tourists who had taken part in the Canyoning trip had placed their complete and unquestioning trust in Adventure World and their guides.

by Dale Bechtel in Interlaken

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