Criminal inquiry into deaths of Alps tourists

SWITZERLAND banned white-water adventures in the Interlaken area yesterday and opened a criminal investigation into the company in charge of Tuesday's disastrous canyoning excursion. As the waters yielded the body of a 19th victim, two tourists, including a Briton, were still missing.

The other victims were from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland. Two of the eight guides accompanying the 43 tourists were reported to be among the dead.

Police are refusing to give details of the victims until they are properly identified. They were battered by rocks, logs and water and police in the victims' home countries have been asked to obtain fingerprints to aid identification. Most of the victims were young and male; four were women.

The investigation into Adventure World, which is based at Interlaken, is expected to centre on questions about the guides' qualifications, their ability to respond to a crisis and the care they were taking to protect their customers from danger.

Although clear weather had been forecast for Tuesday, locals said that they could see storm clouds when the tourists began their trip. The victims were swept away by floods that resulted from a thunderstorm upstream. Within 15 minutes, the Saxeten brook rose by several metres in the gorge where the tourists were taking their first steps. According to one theory, the brook had been dammed by logs and it took a downpour to release the waters.

The river is known for its malevolent nature: in the summer of 1987 it was transformed by a cloudburst into a vicious force of destruction that swept away three bridges. Locals cannot understand why the company nevertheless went ahead with the trip.

"It was irresponsible," one told Swiss television. "We saw there would be a thunderstorm in the afternoon."

Mr Hodle spent yesterday expressing his sorrow for the victims but he could not shed any light on the mystery either. "I can't tell you how it was, because I wasn't there," he said. However, he confirmed that the people who take tourists to canyoning spots get fairly short training - one-week of "intensive" training abroad, followed by a five-week "intensive" course on the stream where they work. Mr Hodle said that until Tuesday, his company had been operating for six years and only a few limbs had been broken on excursions.

Yesterday, the Swiss Mountain Guides Association described the canyoning "crash courses" given to instructors as "inadequate".

Some of the survivors were yesterday recounting their ordeal to relatives. Len Brajkovich, an Australian, said his 21-year-old daughter Kelly narrowly missed being caught in the wall of water which engulfed her friends.

"She said the water was crystal clear one minute and just murk, mud and logs the next. She went under and somebody grabbed her and she grabbed somebody else and they just clambered straight up the sides and back out of reach of the water."