Guide `takes blame' for raft deaths

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A RIVER guide who made desperate attempts to save four British and Irish tourists as their white-water raft hit a whirlpool blamed himself for the tragedy, the tour organiser said last night.

A police investigation was opened yesterday into the tragedy in which three Irish holidaymakers and one Briton died in a swollen mountain river in Austria. Their raft was swept over a nine-foot weir and into a whirlpool after all efforts to avoid the restricted stretch of the river failed.

The four were named yesterday as Irish nationals Alan Daly, 35, from Ballivor, John Thomas McGeough, 28, who was living in London, and Emma Duke, also 28, from Dublin, and a British citizen, Mark Richardson, 33, from Biddenham, Bedfordshire. They were in a party of 17, on two inflatable rubber rafts on a trip with the British-run company Rafting Centre Taxenbach. All were said to have been wearing life jackets and helmets.

Rosmarie Drexler, the district governor of Pinzgau, said yesterday that she had asked the white-water rafting companies to avoid the area even though the stretch of river where the accident happened was not dangerous.

Rafts are forbidden from entering the dangerous part of the river and the party had intended to disembark and walk around the weir. One raft was manoeuvred to the riverbank, but passengers on the other raft were unable to follow and continued downstream.

Attempts to throw a rope around an overhead safety cable strung above the water were thwarted when the rope snapped and the raft was swept over the weir and into a whirlpool.

The seven people on board and their guide fell from the raft and were dragged down into the whirlpool. The guide was unhurt and the other three, Mr Richardson's girlfriend, Tania Davies, 25, Nickolas Stevenson, an economics expert, and Miranda Stevenson, 25, a physiotherapist, all from Bedfordshire, were injured.

They were treated at the local hospital in Schwarzach and were expected to be released yesterday evening.

Trevor Hamer, the owner of the Rafting Centre Taxenbach, said conditions had been good when the accident happened.

"The sun was shining and the conditions were very favourable for rafting," he said.

"My feelings and thoughts go with the families of the victims and my colleagues who were involved.

"I have decided to stop the trips while this matter is being investigated. I will be speaking to authorities on Thursday and will make a decision after that."

A spokesman for the British embassy in Vienna said Mr Daly's pregnant wife was with him on the trip and was yesterday under sedation. The couple had one child.

Mr Richardson was described by neighbours yesterday as a "lovely, quiet lad".

Mike Jennings said: "He was a very nice, educated sort of bloke, the sort of person you would want to have as a neighbour. He was a big bloke too, the sort of chap you would expect to go on a macho holiday."