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Italy

Italian bridge company under fire as rescuers toil for third day

The tragedy has focused anger on the structural problems that have dogged the decades-old Morandi bridge and Autostrade, an infrastructure giant

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 10:15pm

Italy’s populist government was on a war footing on Thursday with the Italian operator of the bridge that collapsed and killed dozens in the port city of Genoa as desperate efforts to find survivors in the rubble went into a third day.

Shares in Atlantia, the holding company of infrastructure giant Autostrade per L’Italia, plummeted after the government said it would seek to revoke its lucrative contracts.

On the ground, rescuers toiled among bulldozers and cranes to find survivors amid the ruins of a vast span of the Morandi bridge that collapsed on Tuesday, sending about 35 cars and several trucks plunging 45 metres onto railway tracks below.

“We were unlucky last night, we did not find anyone. We are still looking for cavities that can hide people, living or not,” said fire official Emanuele Gissi, adding that the unstable rubble has made the search operation “dangerous”.

“We are trying to cut the big pieces of concrete that fell off the bridge, after which we will move them with the cranes and send in search dogs. Then our personnel will try to see if there are any positive signs.”

The government has blamed Autostrade per l’Italia, which operates and maintains nearly half of the country’s motorways, for the tragedy that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Thursday has claimed at least 38 lives.

Children aged eight, 12 and 13 were among the dead, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Wednesday, adding that more people were still missing. Sixteen people were injured. Three Chileans, who live in Italy, and four French nationals were also killed.

We are still looking for cavities that can hide people, living or not
Emanuele Gissi, fire official

The government has announced a year-long state of emergency in the region, with 5 million (US$5.7 millions) going toward recovery work.

Conte said on Wednesday that his government would seek to revoke the company’s contract for the A10 motorway, which includes the bridge, while Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said the company should be fined up to 150 million.

The government, in power only since June, claims that Autostrade failed to carry out necessary maintenance of the bridge, which has also drawn fire from engineering experts.

A transport ministry spokesperson said the government was mulling revoking all other motorway contracts awarded to the company.

Autostrade denies that it scrimps on motorway maintenance, saying it has invested over 1 billion a year in “safety, maintenance and strengthening of the network” since 2012.

Autostrade’s holding company Atlantia, whose shares crashed 24 per cent on Thursday after a brief suspension, slammed the government for threatening to revoke its contracts “without any verification of the material causes of the accident”.

It warned that the government would have to refund the group the value of the contract, which runs until at least 2038.

The tragedy has focused anger on the structural problems that have dogged the decades-old Morandi bridge and Autostrade.

Deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday: “You just cannot die while paying tolls.”

Survivors recounted the heart-stopping moment when the bridge buckled, tossing vehicles and hunks of concrete into the abyss.

Davide Capello, a former goalkeeper for Italian Serie A club Cagliari, plunged with his car but was unscathed.

I was driving along the bridge, and at a certain point I saw the road in front of me collapse, and I went down with the car
Davide Capello, witness

“I was driving along the bridge, and at a certain point I saw the road in front of me collapse, and I went down with the car,” he told TV news channel Sky TG24.

As cars and trucks tumbled off the bridge, Afifi Idriss, 39, a Moroccan truck driver, just managed to stop in time.

“I saw the green truck in front of me stop and then reverse so I stopped too, locked the truck and ran,” he said.

While around a dozen flat blocks that stand in the shadow of the viaduct were largely spared the impact of the falling concrete, the Liguria regional government said some 634 people had been evacuated.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the homes would have to be pulled down.

The incident 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.

The Morandi viaduct, completed in 1967, spans dozens of railway lines.

The bridge has been riddled with structural problems since its construction, which has led to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.

On Tuesday, engineering website “Ingegneri.info” called it “a tragedy waiting to happen”.

Conte said a national day of mourning will be observed on Saturday.