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Six Guilty in Swiss Canyoning Deaths

December 11, 2001 GMT

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INTERLAKEN, Switzerland (AP) _ Six former employees of a defunct adventure company were convicted of negligent manslaughter Tuesday in the deaths of 18 tourists and three guides in an Alpine flash flood.

The convicted were all given suspended sentences, meaning none will serve time in prison, but four must pay fines. The suspended sentences were from three months to five months. The maximum possible penalty was one year.

Judge Thomas Zbinden, who presided over the trial watched by victims’ parents and friends from Australia, Britain and South Africa, convicted the defendants of allowing a canyoning trip to go ahead despite poor weather. He acquitted two surviving guides. Canyoning involves jumping, sliding and rappelling into rivers and swimming downstream without a raft.

The eight associates of the former tour operator Adventure World were charged with manslaughter through culpable negligence for the deaths in the Saxet Brook above Interlaken on July 27, 1999.

They were accused of leading the vacationers _ aged 18 to 31 _ into a river gorge even though a thunderstorm was breaking overhead. The tourists were swept away by a muddy wall of water. All the victims drowned.

All the defendants had pleaded innocent. They testified that the flash flood was unforeseeable.

The judge said the three directors of Adventure World _ Stephan Friedli, Peter Balmer and Georg Hoedle _ should have ordered a risk analysis and should have banned canyoning during storms. They received five-month suspended sentences and were each fined about $4,500.

General manager Felix Oehler was given a five-month suspended sentence and fined about $3,000.

Other staff were convicted of not stopping the trip despite the weather and got three-month suspended sentences.

``Safety is, and remains, the most important thing for a company like Adventure World,″ Zbinden told a hushed courtroom at the end of the weeklong trial. ``The responsibility for this lies with the board of directors.″

The defendants left after the verdict, showing no reaction. Families and friends of the victims welcomed the judgment.

``We are very happy. The ones we thought were guilty were found guilty,″ said Bronwyn Smith, whose daughter Briana, a 19-year-old Australian, was killed.

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``I think the judge stuck to the true facts of the case,″ added Bruce Tout. ``He got the right guys who were responsible for the death of Warwick,″ he said, referring to his 28-year-old son, also from Australia.

But Rachel O’Brien, who survived the trip but lost her best friend, said the guides should have been convicted too because they did not decide to stop the trip when the water rose and changed color.

``It’s kind of hard to hear that (they are not guilty) and know that eight people in my canyoning group were still killed,″ she said.

Prosecutor Hans-Peter Schuerch had asked for suspended sentences of between five and 10 months and fines of up to $6,000.

Last year, two other employees of Adventure World were given five-month suspended sentences in the death of 22-year-old American Matthew Coleman, who slammed into the ground during a bungee jump with a cord that was too long. The two were convicted of negligent manslaughter.

That accident forced Adventure World to close.