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Managers deny responsibility for canyoning tragedy

Felix Oehler, former general manager of Adventure World, testified on Tuesday Keystone Archive

The managers of Adventure World have denied responsibility for the deaths of 21 people, killed during an ill-fated canyoning expedition in 1999, during their trial in Interlaken.

This content was published on December 5, 2001 - 08:57

Managers Felix Oehler and Bernhard Gafner are accused of manslaughter through culpable negligence in the July, 1999 accident in which 21 people, including 18 young vacationers and three guides, were killed in the Saxet Brook after being swept away by a flash flood.

Oehler told the court that the weather on the day of the tragedy was not unusual. "The information I had was for good weather... with possible thunder in western Switzerland...but I cannot define that," he said.

Weather conditions

Oehler, the father of two children and now unemployed, said the level of water in the Saxet Brook was also not unusual and he did not feel it warranted discussion with the lead guide of the tour.

The water level was "very, very low", he said.

When asked about responsibility for the deaths, Oehler told the court he felt there had been nothing he could have done to prevent them, and he did not feel he was guilty.

"It haunts me"

Still, at the beginning of proceedings, when asked by the presiding judge about the meaning of the accident, Oehler said, "I think about it every day. It haunts me."

He confirmed that as general manager, he had been responsible for safety but said there were no written safety regulations before the accident.

Asked who did what in terms of looking after Adventure World's customers and if there was a written statement of staff duties, Oehler could not recall.

"I cannot tell you. I don't know. It was communicated but I'm not sure it was on paper. The situation has to be seen as team work," he said.

Safety precautions at the company, which went bankrupt, were made defensively, he said. "I told all the staff that in the case of doubt, the decision should be taken not to proceed."

Oehler is accused of manslaughter through culpable negligence in giving insufficient instruction to the canyoning guides on the day in question (July 27) about the dangers. Prosecutors said he did not cancel trips already booked in spite of a thunderstorm breaking over the Saxet Valley.

Another general manager, Bernhard Gafner, also testified on Tuesday, followed by the lead guide for canyoning, Bernhard Steuri.

Manager inspected gorge

Gafner said he had inspected the Saxet gorge a month before the tragedy and had found nothing "out of the ordinary".

"As far as I could see in the inspection there was nothing in the way to prevent canyoning activities," he told the court.

A carpenter by trade, Gafner said that on the day of the accident, he started work officially at four o'clock in the afternoon, arriving at the Adventure World base at Wilderswil about midday to carry out other company duties.

Gafner said he had noticed clouds above Interlaken and Wildferswil but the sky was mostly clear above the Saxet Valley.

He said he had no part in the activities involving the groups which took part in the fatal accident.

Asked if he felt he had made any errors in judgement, Gafner told the court: "As a result of my analysis of the situation concerning water levels and the weather, I don't believe I made a mistake."

Lead guide responsible

Steuri confirmed testimonies given on Tuesday by two other defendants and said as lead guide he was responsible for deciding if canyoning trips were carried out.

He told the court it was raining around five o'clock in the evening on July 27 but it was not serious enough to warrant cancelling planned excursions. He added that the water level, which had been low that day, was a deciding factor.

However, he admitted that local weather conditions did not hint at the strong thunderstorm which later hit the canyoning groups.

Steuri said he was not aware of having made a mistake in connection with the tragedy, which he described as an "unpredictable situation."

"I was convinced it wasn't a strong thunderstorm over the Saxet Valley," he said. "I didn't think it would have a big influence on the water level."

The trial continues on Wednesday with testimony from two Adventure World guides, Simon Wiget and Stefan Abegglen.

by Robert Brookes

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