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Switzerland shocked by worst water sports accident that kills 18

Switzerland was in shock Wednesday after at least 18 people seeking the thrills of an Alpine river adventure drowned in a flash flood near the tourist resort of Interlaken. The Swiss authorities have set up an emergency contact number for relatives.

This content was published on July 28, 1999 - 08:52

Switzerland was in shock Wednesday after at least 18 people seeking the thrills of an Alpine canyoning river adventure drowned when a flash flood swelled a mountain stream near the tourist resort of Interlaken into a deadly torrent.

The Swiss authorities have set up an emergency contact number for relatives who fear their family member may be among the victims. The number is:

(International code for Switzerland), then 41 31 634 20 51.
(For calls made in Switzerland) 031 634 20 51.

At least one person was still reported missing but search and rescue teams expressed little hope of finding that person alive. Six people were injured, including one critically.

Swiss police did not release the identities of the victims but a police spokesman said that two canyoning guides were among the dead.

Heinz Wey, the Swiss Consul General in Sydney, Australia, said authorities were still trying to complete the identification of the dead on Wednesday, but that victims included tourists from the United States, Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

"It's awful," said Georg Hoedle, one of the managers of the Swiss-based tour organizer, Adventure World, choking back tears at a press conference. "We've been organizing canyoning for six years and until now have only had the occasional broken leg."

The accident was discovered around 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) by a local jogger who saw bodies floating into nearby Lake Brienz.

"I saw huge pieces of wood in the water," said Andreas Haesler. "Then I saw bodies -- one on its stomach, one on its back. They were all wearing life jackets but it was clear they were dead," he told Swiss television.

The accident apparently occurred while a party of 44 tourists and eight guides were plunging down waterfalls and rapids on the Saxeten brook. At the same time, a sudden storm swelled the waters within a matter of seconds into a raging torrent, uprooting trees and other vegetation in its fury.

The mother of one survivor from New Zealand said her son told her he was swept a long way down the river over a series of waterfalls, but it wasn't clear whether he had been rescued or scrambled ashore by himself.

The brook flows into a stream which turns into Lake Brienz near the village of Boenigen on the outskirts of Interlaken, a popular tourist town around 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of the Swiss capital, Bern.

Local people said they were shocked -- but not surprised -- about the tragedy, saying the party should never have set out in the first place.

"It was clear a storm was coming," resident Albert Balmer told local radio.

It was the worst water sports accident in living memory. In 1993, 12 people were killed in a river rafting adventure in eastern Switzerland.


From staff and wire reports.

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