Former Adventure World manager takes the stand

Felix Oehler, former general manager of Adventure World, has taken the stand in the canyoning trial in Interlaken Keystone Archive

On the second day of proceedings at the Interlaken canyoning trial, the former general manager of the company Adventure World has taken the stand to testify about the 1999 accident near Interlaken which claimed 21 lives.

This content was published on December 4, 2001 minutes

In addition to Felix Oehler, one of two former general managers of Adventure World, two other former Adventure World staff are expected to take the stand. They are former general manager Bernhard Gafner, and Bernhard Steuri, lead guide for canyoning.

On Monday, two of the accused admitted that safety instructions for adventure sport guides were not written down.

Stefan Friedli and Peter Balmer, both former directors of Adventure World, told the court that it was only after the accident in 1999, in which 21 people died, that the company introduced printed safety manuals.

Before Friedli and Balmer took the stand however, Bronwyn Smith, the mother of one of the victims, was permitted to address the court.

Fighting back tears, she described how she and her husband had learned of the death of their 19-year-old daughter. She said her daughter, Briana, had been 'a beautiful, precious and lovely girl", and that her death had devastated the family.

Asked whether she had been contacted by any of the Adventure World staff after the accident, she replied, " No, they were too pathetic and gutless to do so."

Trial coverage

The trial has drawn global attention, with particular interest from media in Australia. However, a number of Australian correspondents abandoned the trial on Monday after they discovered that "Swiss German" rather than "high German" was being used in the courtroom, and they had difficulty in understanding the proceedings. Fourteen of the victims were from Australia.

The first defendant to take the stand on Monday was Friedli, who was president of the board of management of Adventure World at the time of the accident.

The charges against him include "allowing a canyoning trip to be led into the Saxet Brook without having worked out a set of safety provisions," particularly during thunderstorms, and for "inadequately supervising the general managers and lead guides of Adventure World."

Friedli admitted he was aware that a thunderstorm could cause a rapid and dangerous rise in the water level of the Saxet Brook, "within 10 to 15 minutes", he said. However, he added that a storm brewing over the valley did not necessarily mean an expedition could not go ahead.

Friedli added that Adventure World staff assessed the possible danger in the brook by measuring the water level, and by taking note of any change to the colour of the water. He explained that guides had verbal instructions not to proceed with canyoning trips if a heavy storm was underway, or if there was hail.

Catastrophe unforeseen

However Friedli, who made a confident witness, insisted that the sudden flash flood which occurred, and the deaths which it caused, could not have been foreseen or prevented by Adventure World staff.

Friedli was questioned closely about the staff structure at Adventure World, and about the division of responsibility. He repeated several times that the company's general manager, or a specific trip's lead guide, would have been the ones to make the final decision about whether a trip should go ahead or not.

Next to give evidence was Balmer, who was vice-president of Adventure World until the company was sold last year.

Balmer, clearly nervous and ill at ease in court, explained that he knew the Saxet Brook well, because he had grown up in Wilderswil, and his parents had a holiday home nearby. He described spending boyhood summers there, swimming in the Saxet Brook.

A "simple" canyoning trip

Balmer told the court that Adventure World had received advice from water sports professionals from New Zealand before deciding to go ahead with canyoning trips in the Saxet Brook.

He said the brook was regarded as a "simple" canyoning trip, suitable for beginners. Balmer explained that Adventure World staff prepared visitors for the trip by showing them a video of canyoning on the Saxet Brook, and briefing them about conditions.

Responding to charges that responsibility to decide whether a trip should go ahead or not had been left to staff who did not have the experience or training necessary to make an informed decision, Balmer said all of Adventure World's staff were well-organised and well-trained, and the accident could not have been anticipated.

Asked whether this meant he and his colleagues were not to blame for what happened, Balmer replied "Yes that is right, we are not to blame."

Assessing weather

The lawyer for the prosecution asked Balmer to assess the weather on July 27th, 1999, the day of the accident. Asked four times to say in his estimation whether the storm that day had been heavy, Balmer replied on each occasion "I don't know."

Like Friedli, Balmer referred many of the more detailed questions about the weather and the application of safety guidelines to Adventure World's general manager at the time, Felix Oehler.

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