The Swiss Canyoning Disaster
The facts behind that fateful day
On 27 July 1999, forty-five young people on two separate Contiki tours participated in the activity of canyoning organised by the company Adventure World in the Saxetenbach Gorge, Switzerland. Canyoning is the activity of sliding, floating, swimming and climbing through an area, often a riverine or gorge.
Participants were separated into four groups. Each group entered the canyon at the same point, but started at different times to avoid too many participants being in the same spot at one time.
During the expedition, a flash flood raced down the gorge. A natural dam had formed at the top of the mountain, but a thunderstorm caused the dam wall to break, flooding the canyon, taking everything in its path.
The first group to enter into the canyon included twelve participants. Ten of whom were on the banks at the time the flood reached them.
The second group to enter the canyon, with eleven participants – including Tiffany Johnson – were in the gorge between large boulders when the wall of water hit.
Only three survived.
The third group, consisting of eleven participants, was directly behind Tiffany’s group, and situated where the absailing was and where the second group had just been. They too, were stuck in the middle of the gorge.
Only one survived.
The fourth and final group of eleven participants never entered the canyon.
Twenty-one people died that day.
People from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England and Switzerland died. Eighteen were tourists, of that fourteen were Australian, and three were canyon guides.
At the time, it was the largest number of deaths of young Australians outside of Australia at one time during times of peace.
The flood hit at 6 pm. By 7 pm the media had been alerted of the incident and the news rapidly spread across the globe.
Some of the bodies washed up in the Lake Brienz at the bottom of the canyon. One body has never been recovered.
Identifying the dead bodies was a severe problem for the Swiss authorities. Language barriers, time zones, lack of local records of individuals or family members of the deceased all contributed to the difficulty. Due to the number of bodies, eight travel companions opted to help pre-identify the dead to help assist the authorities, this ensured that families were connected to the right body. The bodies were badly traumatised, some had to be identified through DNA and dental analysis. Tattoos assisted where there was no other way to identify the body due to trauma.
On 5 August 1999, Sir William Deane, governor general of Australia, flew to Interlaken for an Ecumenical Service for the victims of the canyoning tragedy, held at the Saxetenbach Gorge with families of the victims. A memorial rock was unveiled with the victims’ names on a plaque and a tribute wall where wreaths, letters and flowers were left for the deceased. The governor general’s speech at that service has since been recognised as one of Australia’s most important speeches for international relations and has been used as part of the New South Wales Year Twelve English curriculum.
Adventure World went out of business. Six company directors were charged and found guilty of manslaughter through culpable negligence. They were given suspended jail sentences of between two and five months and fined between 4000 and 7500 Swiss francs.
Response units around the world have since changed the way that they manage natural-disaster rescues and trauma treatment for survivors, including integrating mental health care plans now as part of the recovery from the learnings during this disaster.