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Italy

‘Tragedy waiting to happen’: Italian bridge that collapsed had been riddled with structural problems for decades

Genoa’s Morandi motorway bridge had required constant maintenance for cracks and other woes, as a result of ‘failed’ construction techniques employed in the 1960s

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 9:55pm

Genoa’s Morandi motorway bridge, a 200-metre portion of which collapsed on Tuesday killing dozens of people, has been riddled with structural problems since its construction in the 1960s, which has led to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.

Engineering experts called it a “tragedy waiting to happen”.

A frantic search was underway Wednesday for survivors of the bridge collapse and the government blamed the company in charge of the country’s motorways for the disaster.

Some 38 people were killed when a vast span collapsed during a heavy rainstorm, sending vehicles and their drivers plunging 100 metres onto railway tracks below.

Motorway bridge collapses in Italy, killing about 30

The victims include children aged eight, 12 and 13, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said, adding that more people were still missing.

Sources told Italian media that 16 people were wounded, including 12 in serious condition.

The government said it intended to revoke the contract of Autostrade per l’Italia, a private sector company owned by Atlantia, and slap it with a fine of 150 million (US$170 million).

The Italy built in the 1950s and 1960s is in urgent need of renovation. The risk of collapses is underestimated
Diego Zoppi, former president of the Genoa branch of the order of architects

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said the tragedy “could have been avoided”.

“Autostrade should have done maintenance and didn’t do it,” he said.

The incident - the deadliest of its kind in Europe since 2001 - is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, a country prone to damage from seismic activity but where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.

In March last year, a couple were killed when a motorway overpass collapsed on their car near Ancona on the country’s Adriatic coast.

A pensioner died in October 2016 when his car was crushed by a collapsing bridge over a dual carriageway between Milan and Lecco.

That incident was blamed on bureaucratic bungling which led to a fatal delay in the bridge being closed after it was reported to be showing significant cracks.

“Italians have the right to modern and efficient infrastructure that accompanies them safely through their everyday lives,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said “all infrastructure” across the country needed to be double-checked.

“We must not allow another tragedy like this to happen again,” he said.

But the risks presented by the Morandi bridge, built between 1963 and 1967, had long been clear.

The technology of prestressed reinforced concrete used in the construction was the hallmark of its designer, the celebrated Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, who died in 1989.

On Tuesday specialist engineering website Ingegneri.info published a piece that highlighted how the bridge had always presented “structural doubts”, calling it “a tragedy waiting to happen”.

Lending support to the website was Antonio Brencich, a professor of reinforced concrete construction at the University of Genoa, highlighting the constant maintenance the bridge needed.

“It was affected by extremely serious corrosion problems linked to the technology that was used (in construction).

Morandi wanted to use a technology that he had patented that was no longer used afterwards and that showed itself to be a failure,” said Brencich to Radio Capitale,

Brencich has long been a critic of the bridge. In 2016 he spoke with “Ingegneri.info” about construction going over budget and poor calculations over concrete viscosity that led to an uneven road surface which wasn’t fully corrected until the 1980s.

Economic news agency Radiocor reported that Italy’s motorway agency had recently launched a 20-million (US$22 million) tender for work on the viaduct.

The tender provided for a strengthening of the bridge’s pier cables, including those of pier nine, the one that collapsed on Tuesday.

Notwithstanding the importance of a road that sees 25 million vehicles pass along it every year, the demolition of the bridge was being studied as far back as 2009.

Ingegneri.info 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.

In the early 2000s the suspension cables put in place in the 1980s and 1990s were replaced.

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

Zoppi warns that it is impossible that similar tragedies won’t happen again without serious work on infrastructure built after the second world war.

“The Italy built in the 1950s and 1960s is in urgent need of renovation. The risk of collapses is underestimated, the works built at that time are coming to an age when they are at risk.”