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Canyoning survivor recalls moment of disaster

Witness Rachel O'Brien speaking to the press after her testimony in court

The only survivor to testify in the Canyoning trial has given a very different account of events than her two guides.

The 22-year-old Australian, Rachel O’Brien, is the only survivor to be called to the stand during the trial of eight managers and guides of the extreme sports company, Adventure World, charged with manslaughter through culpable negligence.

O’Brien spoke confidently and showed no emotion while describing the weather conditions in the Saxet Brook before a flash flood swept through the gorge, killing 21 tourists and guides, including her best friend.

Whereas her two guides downplayed the seriousness of the storm during testimony earlier in the week, O’Brien said it was clear that a storm was approaching, even before the group left the base camp of Adventure World.

Thunder and lightning

She said the storm was well underway once the tourists arrived at the point where the Canyoning trip was to begin. It was raining very hard, O’Brien said, and there was thunder and lightning.

She told the court that before they entered the Saxet Brook, the guides turned to the participants and said that if the weather got any worse, they might have to end the tour.

This statement was in complete contradiction to the testimony given by one of the guides, who said that the rain would make the water level rise, and therefore make the trip more interesting.

Once in the brook, O’Brien said the water colour gradually changed from light brown and cloudy to dark brown just before a large “wave” hit. The guides have maintained there was a slight change in the colour of the water but not enough for them to expect a large and sudden rise in the water level.

By the end of the first abseil in the brook, the water had risen about half a metre, O’Brien said. She added that it continually rose during the trip. Asked whether the sun had poked through the clouds at any point, as the guides testified, she answered “no”.

Her group was swept away by a wall of water as they were preparing to make a fourth jump. “We were all standing together holding hands because the water was so high,” she explained.

Wave was coming

“Suddenly the last person in the group, Briana Smith, yelled that a wave was coming,” she continued. “We turned around and saw a wave that was as high as the gorge.”

She remembered how the guides yelled for everyone to grab on to something and only having about two seconds to react. Most of them grabbed on to a rope in the water.

She eventually lost hold of the rope but was able to pull herself up on to a rock and to safety. She suffered only minor cuts and bruises.

O’Brien also cast doubt on the professionalism of Adventure World. She said before going ahead with the trip, the company did not ask her about any health problems she may have had. If she had been asked, she said, she would have told the company of her chronic asthma.

She also described being rushed through various areas of the company’s base where the clothing and equipment necessary for Canyoning was handed out. She claimed that the procedure had been so rushed that she was given an ill-fitting pair of shoes but had no time to exchange them.

The defence and prosecution are expected to make their pleas on Monday. The verdict is expected a day later.

by Dale Bechtel in Interlaken

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR