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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK

World: Europe

Three Britons in Swiss disaster

Rescue workers and a doctor search for victims

Three Britons are among the 21 people dead or missing in the canyoning disaster in Switzerland, the Foreign Office has revealed.

Nineteen people have died, including at least one of the Britons, and six are injured after Tuesday's accident, which has been blamed on a flash flood. Relatives are now beginning to identify the bodies.

[ image:  ]
"The FCO is urgently trying to trace their next-of-kin. Identification could take several weeks," a spokesman said.

Reports say the victims also include holiday-makers from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and South Africa.

But 26 tourists escaped the ordeal relatively unharmed.

Police have asked bereaved relatives heading for Switzerland to take medical records with them, to help experts at Bern University confirm identities using DNA tests and dental records.

The BBC's Claire Doole: "The inquiry will decide whether criminal negligence is involved"
One British victim who has been confirmed dead was working as a driver on the tour. He joined the others when the canyoning expedition was offered as an optional extra.

The man, in his early 30s and from Buckinghamshire, took the job driving tourists across the continent on lengthy tours this year, organisers Contiki Holidays said.

Swiss police said another Briton, who may have had dual nationality, was one of just two victims so far positively identified from the 19 bodies recovered.

The man, originally believed to be a New Zealander, was working for Adventure Travel, which had arranged the expedition.

The bodies were being examined in the city mortuary, both as part of the identification process and also to provide evidence for a criminal investigation into their death.

The victims were among a party of 45 tourists who were canyoning with eight guides in the Saxeten Bach Gorge near the resort of Interlaken, central Switzerland.

Sudden thunderstorm

Canyoning is an adventure sport that involves climbing down gorges, and body surfing down mountain rapids and waterfalls without a raft.

The accident was discovered at around 1800 local time on Tuesday (1600 GMT) by a jogger who saw bodies floating into Lake Brienz, near Interlaken.

The victims had apparently been swept down from a nearby canyon, possibly in flash floods following a sudden thunderstorm.

[ image:  ]
The mother of one of the six injured people told how her son had tumbled down about six waterfalls after being hit by what he described as "a massive wall of water".

New Zealander John Hall, who is in hospital with back injuries, told his mother Ann that a lot of his friends had been killed, but that staff were shielding him from the extent of the tragedy.

The expedition had been organised by Adventure World, a Swiss company based in nearby Wilderswil, which is popular with Americans and Japanese.

BBC's Hugh Schofield: Locals saw bodies floating down the river
"It's awful," said Georg Hoedle, one of the company's managers, as he choked back tears at a news conference.

"We've been organising canyoning for six years and until now have only had the occasional broken leg."

Examining Magistrate Martin Trapp: The accident could have been caused by a thunder storm
Reports say a sudden storm swelled the Saxeten brook into a raging torrent, uprooting trees.

The stream flows into a river which in turn empties into Lake Brienz around 60 kilometres (37 miles) southeast of the Swiss capital, Bern.

Examining Magistrate Martin Trapp, who is investigating the accident, told the BBC there had been thunder and lightning in the afternoon and he would be looking at whether the storm could have caused the deaths.

The authorities have set up a special phone line for worried relatives on (41-31) 634-20-51.

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