Tour guide rejects criticism following cave rescue

Now the rescue is over, speleological groups have begun to criticise the organisers of the expedition in the French cave Keystone

The leader of the group of Swiss amateur cavers who had to be rescued from a cave on the French border after a 72-hour ordeal has defended herself against criticism. Judith Steinle said it was wrong to condemn the organisers without knowledge of all the facts.

This content was published on May 21, 2001 - 08:49

The 31-year-old told the "Neue Luzerner Zeitung" the problem had not been the flooded cave itself, but the fact that the group of seven students had only been adequately prepared for one night in the cave.

"We were apparently the victims of a particular natural phenomenon," Steinle said. "Rushing to condemn us will just destroy things that have taken a long time to build up."

Steinle's mother, Agatha, earlier rejected criticism of her daughter's actions in comments carried by the "SonntagsBlick" newspaper.

"Of course there is always a risk that something might happen," she said, "but Judith is competent. She regularly attends training courses and I have absolute faith in her ability."

The cavers were trapped 80 metres underground on Wednesday night when a flash flood sealed off the entrance to the cave. However, it took until Saturday night to reduce the water levels enough to free them.

Aged between 25 and 35, they were all student social workers from a Zurich college. They had gone into the cave as part of a course designed to develop their ability to face challenges in their careers.

The French Speleological Emergency Association accused the company that organised the excursion into the cave, Altamira, of putting the lives of the cavers "in danger without any consideration".

"I have made a harsh judgement of Altamira," said Pierre Cailleul, an instructor at the speleological group. "They were trying to make money without taking into account the potential risks to people's lives."

Both Altamira and Steinle have come under intense criticism in Switzerland as well for going ahead with the cave tour despite adverse weather conditions.

In a strongly worded critique, the Swiss newspaper, "", said that hundreds of rescuers had been working to "resolve the completely irresponsible behaviour" of the group of cavers.

After an overnight stay in a nearby hospital and a final medical examination on Sunday, the group were declared fit and well and allowed to return home.

In an interview with the paper, the head of the regional police, Alain Gehin, said it "beggared belief that nobody at Altamira had realised that it had been raining in the area virtually non-stop for more than two months".

Valentin Vonder Mühll, director of Altamira, refused to be held responsible for the turn of events in the French village of Goumois. He told the German-language paper, "SonntagsZeitung" that "sometimes there are accidents where the blame rests with nobody."

"It is in any case far too early," he said, "to talk about blame when we don't even yet know what exactly happened down there."

According to Gehin, 411 per cent more rain has fallen in the area since March than in the same period last year.

swissinfo with agencies

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