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Swiss River Accident Kills 18

July 27, 1999

BOENIGEN, Switzerland (AP) _ A flash flood apparently trapped adventurers in a mountain stream Tuesday in the Swiss Alps, killing 18 people, Bern state police said.

Six people were injured, including one critically.

At least one person was still missing and feared dead following the accident, which was discovered around 6 p.m. when bodies started floating into Lake Brienz near the picturesque central resort town of Interlaken.

``I saw huge pieces of wood in the water,″ Andreas Haesler, a local jogger, told Swiss television. ``Then I saw bodies _ one on its stomach, one on its back. They were all wearing life jackets but it was clear they were dead.″

The accident is believed to be the worst ever for the sport of canyoning, in which participants slide, jump or rappel down waterfalls and mountain streams into gorges without rafts.

Swiss news media speculated that the victims included foreigners because the Swiss-based organizer, Adventure World, attracted mainly young Americans and Japanese.

Swiss officials refused to disclose identities because relatives had not been notified.

Georg Hoedle, a manager with Adventure World, the Swiss-based organizer, choked back tears at a press conference.

``It’s awful,″ he said. ``We’ve been organizing canyoning for six years and until now have only had the occasional broken leg.″

Canyoning is an increasingly popular sport. Participants wear wetsuits and helmets and must be able to swim and climb well.

The victims were apparently among 44 tourists and eight guides who had been plunging down waterfalls and rapids on the Saxeten brook. The brook flows into a stream that empties into Lake Brienz near the village of Boenigen, 40 miles southeast of the Swiss capital, Bern. Boenigen is on the outskirts of Interlaken.

At the same time, a sudden storm swelled the waters into a raging torrent, uprooting trees and other vegetation in its fury.

Investigating magistrate Martin Trapp confirmed that there was a sudden storm but refused to give further details of the accident. The waters are known to rise rapidly in wet weather.

Local residents said they were shocked about the tragedy but not surprised.

``It was clear a storm was coming,″ Albert Balmer told Swiss television.

Canyoning originated in France 15 years ago, but it has spread as far away as Australia.

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