Holiday firm found guilty of negligence over canyon deaths

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Six managers and guides of the now defunct company Adventure World received suspended jail sentences yesterday after they were convicted by a Swiss court of negligent manslaughter over the deaths of 18 tourists – including three Britons – and three of its staff.

Eight executives and guides from Adventure World had been accused of causing the deaths of the holidaymakers who were swept away by a flash flood after they were led into the Saxet gorge near the Alpine resort of Interlaken in July 1999.

Witnesses testified that the guides had ignored warnings that heavy storms were anticipated and took the group abseiling down the ravine in an "extreme sport" known as canyoning. The ravine was awash with water within minutes of their arrival.

After the week-long trial in Interlaken, which was attended by many of the victims' relatives from Britain, Australia and South Africa, Judge Thomas Zbinden ruled that the firm should not have taken the tourists on a dangerous excursion in bad weather.

Three members of the Swiss firm's board – Stephan Friedli, Peter Balmer and Georg Hoedle – should have banned canyoning during storms, the judge said. He found two guides not guilty.

The court heard grieving relatives attack the company, whose leaders failed to inform the parents after the accident.

"They were too pathetic and gutless, said Bronwyn Smith, an Australian who lost her 19-year old daughter, Briana.

"We would hope that maybe something like this can never, ever happen again. We would just hope that Adventure World might have the courage to approach us and say how sorry they are."

Adventure World suspended canyoning but carried on with other activities after the tragedy. It went out of business a year ago after a 22-year-old American tourist who was in its care died while bungee-jumping out of a cable car.

Mr Friedli, president of the Adventure World board, told the court that the canyoning tragedy had been "unforeseeable and unavoidable." He added: "I am not conscious of having made a mistake."

Among the dead were Britons Glyn Harries, who was resident in Perth, Australia, Geoffrey Havard, a man in his early 30s from Buckinghamshire, and Andrew Lee, 30, a New Zealander with dual British nationality.