Italian bridge operator under fire for collapse as death toll climbs

The bridge had collapsed during torrential rain on Tuesday, sending dozens of vehicles crashing onto a riverbed, a railway and two warehouses.
The bridge had collapsed during torrential rain on Tuesday, sending dozens of vehicles crashing onto a riverbed, a railway and two warehouses. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE

39 dead with 16 injured; government seeks to revoke firm's concession and levy heavy fines

GENOA (Italy) • Rescuers searched for survivors amid the debris of Italy's collapsed bridge yesterday, as the death toll climbed to 39.

The government blamed the bridge's operator for the accident, demanding resignations and moving to strip its toll concession.

The bridge, part of a toll motorway linking the port city of Genoa with southern France, collapsed during torrential rain on Tuesday, sending dozens of vehicles crashing onto a riverbed, a railway and two warehouses.

Singapore President Halimah Yacob yesterday expressed her condolences to her Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella, saying that she was saddened to hear of the tragic loss of life and injury caused by the collapse of the motorway bridge .

"On behalf of the people of Singapore, I extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families affected by the tragedy," she said.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, said: "I am confident that Italy will pull together and recover from this tragedy."

Hundreds of firefighters searching for survivors yesterday as cranes moved in to shift truck-sized chunks of broken concrete, amid public anger over the state of the 1.2km-long bridge which was completed in 1967.

As cranes moved in to shift truck-sized chunks of broken concrete, hundreds of firefighters searched for survivors, while public shock and grief turned to anger over the state of the 1.2km-long bridge, completed in 1967 and overhauled two years ago.

"To see a pylon come down like papier mache is an incredible thing," said a 37-year-old known only as Ivan, who was evacuated on Tuesday from the nearby building where he works. "It has been a lifetime since we have known there were problems. It was in continual maintenance."

"In the 90s, they added some reinforcements on one part, but underneath, you can see rust," he added.

Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, visiting the disaster scene yesterday, said bridge operator Autostrade would have to contribute to the cost of its reconstruction as well as pay heavy fines.

But Autostrade, a unit of Milan-listed Atlantia group, said it had conducted regular, sophisticated checks on the structure before the disaster, relying on "companies and institutions which are world leaders in testing and inspections", and the checks had provided reassuring results.

  • Possible causes for the collapse


    The Morandi Bridge was built between 1963 and 1967. It has a maximum span of 219m, a total length of 1.18km, and concrete piers (vertical structures that support the arches of a bridge) that reach 90m in height.

    The technology of pre-stressed reinforced concrete used in the construction was the hallmark of its designer, the celebrated Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, who died in 1989. Dubbed patent "Morandi M5", he had used the technology for other works, including a wing of the Verona Arena in 1953.

    This technique also characterises another, even longer and just as problematic Morandi bridge: The 8.7km-long General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge that spans the bay of Maracaibo, Venezuela, and was completed in 1962.

    That bridge "has also experienced problems during its life, so it could be that the design implies a need for a greater degree of maintenance than normal", Mr Ian Firth, a structural engineer specialising in bridges, told BBC News.


    In a phone interview, Mr Antonio Occhiuzzi, director of the Institute for Construction Technology for Italy's National Research Council, told The New York Times that most of the country's infrastructure needs to be carefully re-examined because much was at the end of its useful lifespan.

    "Fifty years ago, we had unlimited confidence in reinforced concrete, we thought it was eternal, but now we know that it only lasts a few decades," Mr Diego Zoppi, former president of the Genoa branch of the order of architects, said on Tuesday.


    Regional weather services had issued a storm warning for the morning of the collapse, and the national police force said on Twitter that the disaster happened amid a "violent cloudburst".

    But Mr Edoardo Rixi, the deputy transportation minister, said the bridge had shown some signs of problems in the past. "A bridge like that does not collapse because of a lightning bolt or a storm."


    Normally, a bridge is designed to last for at least 100 years, according to BBC News.

    Heavy usage of the motorway bridge, which sits on a major artery, the A10, serving the Italian Riviera and linking northern Italy to France, could have accelerated its degradation. Around 25 million vehicles use the Morandi Bridge, less than 5km to the west of Genoa's old port, every year.


    Specialist engineering website said that bridges like the Morandi viaduct should have a lifespan of at least a century, but the structure has been the subject of major maintenance work in the years after its completion, in particular to repair cracks and combat degradation of the concrete.

    "Some maintenance intervention appears to have been going on at the time, but we do not know the details, so it is not possible to say whether this could have been a factor (in the collapse)," Mr Firth told BBC News.

"These outcomes have formed the basis for maintenance work approved by the Transport Ministry in accordance with the law and the terms of the concession agreement," it said.

However, the condition of the bridge and its ability to sustain large increases in both the intensity and weight of traffic over the years have been a focus of public debate since the collapse, when an 80m span gave way at lunchtime as cars packed with holidaymakers as well as trucks streamed across it.

Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the private-sector manager of the bridge had earned billions from tolls but "did not spend the money they were supposed to", adding that its concession should be revoked, apparently referring to Autostrade. "Imposing the highest penalties possible and making sure that those responsible for the dead and the injured pay up for any damages and crimes is the very least," he said.

Fire brigade spokesman Luca Cari said 400 firefighters were at the site, lifting big chunks of concrete to create spaces for rescue teams to check for survivors.

In Paris, France's Foreign Ministry said three French nationals were among the dead.

Mr Toninelli said earlier that he had begun a process to strip Autostrade of its concession, and he demanded that top Autostrade managers resign.

"Autostrade per l'Italia was not able to fulfil its obligations under the contract regulating management of this infrastructure," Mr Toninelli said on state TV, adding that he would also seek to levy heavy fines on the company.

"I have given the mandate to my ministry to start all proceedings to apply the agreement, that is to revoke the concession from these companies and seek significant sanctions which can reach up to €150 million (S$235 million) based on the terms of the contract."

The Morandi Bridge, named after the engineer who designed it, forms part of the A10 motorway run by Autostrade.

The 55km stretch of the A10 accounts for around 1.7 per cent of total network traffic for Italy's biggest toll road operator, according to one analyst's estimate.

"The top management of Autostrade per l'Italia must step down first of all," Mr Toninelli said in a Facebook post. He also said the government would inspect the structure of ageing bridges and tunnels across the country with a view to launching a programme of remedial works if required.

Genoa police put the death toll at 39 so far, with 16 injured.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2018, with the headline 'Italian bridge operator under fire for collapse as death toll climbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe