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‘Should not happen’: Italian officials look for answers after dozens dead in bridge collapse

The Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed Aug. 14, sending cars and slabs of concrete tumbling and leaving at least 20 people dead. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

ROME — A major bridge along the northern Italian coast collapsed Tuesday in an alarming infrastructure failure, sending vehicles plunging more than 150 feet, leaving dozens dead and opening wider questions about the structural underpinnings in a country famed for its beauty but gripped by decades of economic stagnation.

As the death toll climbed — authorities said at least 26 had died, but the ANSA news agency said the count could reach about 35, quoting fire brigade sources — officials moved quickly to investigate how a highway bridge that had stood for five decades suddenly gave out, turning a major transportation artery into an earthquake-like scene of destruction.

“These kind of tragedies cannot and should not happen in a civil country,” Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, told the Italian TV channel TG1. “Those who will be considered responsible will need to pay to the last cent. It should not be possible to see images like these in a country like Italy.”

The event mortified a country that is increasingly known, despite its beguiling facade, for its creaky foundations. The bridge collapse took place during one of Italy’s busiest periods for holiday traffic, when families abandon cities en masse and head for the beach, including to the small towns to the east and west of Genoa overlooking the Ligurian Sea.

The collapse in Genoa occurred during a torrential rainstorm — a possible avenue for experts looking for what set the collapse in motion. In a few seconds, a span of bridge was turned into a void. Slabs of gray concrete and twisted strands of steel blanketed railroad tracks, buildings and a riverbed filled with weeds and marsh grass.

As helicopters waited nearby, rescuers with the help of sniffing dogs scrambled to pull people from the rubble, scaling slabs of concrete angled like mountains.

One Italian official told ANSA that 30 to 35 cars and three trucks were on the Morandi Bridge when it buckled. The suspension bridge spanned a three-quarter-mile section of the coastal city and carried traffic between Italy and France. Video showed witnesses screaming just after a section of the bridge gave way.

One truck was stopped just a few feet from the edge of the chasm — the edge of the bridge sheared cleanly off. “O Dio, o Dio, o Dio,” an onlooker screamed as he recorded massive trusses peeling off the bridge, veiled by thick sheets of rain.

Another eyewitness, who gave his name as Andrea Rescigno and said he was in his car at the time of the bridge collapse, said in a phone interview with Genoa TV station Primocanale that he saw “cars and trucks plunging into the void.”

“I saw death,” Rescigno said. “My wife screamed at me to stop. If not for that we’d be dead now.”

It was unclear what had caused the collapse, but the event raised questions among some Italian government officials about maintenance of their country’s infrastructure — a common concern in developed countries, where many of the major roadways were built decades ago during the postwar boom period. The prosecutor’s office in Genoa said it was ready to open a criminal inquiry.

The company that operates and maintains the highway, along with many other roads in Italy, said in a statement Tuesday that “stabilization” work was ongoing at the time of the collapse. The highway bridge was erected in the 1960s, the company, Autostrade per l’Italia, said.

“The causes of the collapse will be the subject of an in-depth analysis as soon as it is possible to gain safe access to the site,” Autostrade per l’Italia said.

After the collapse in Genoa, several people were pulled from the rubble alive, according to Italian media reports. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made plans to head to Genoa, and French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter that “France stands by Italy” and “is ready to provide all necessary support.”

The disaster and its aftermath provide a test for Italy’s new government, a coalition of two populist parties that took power 2½ months ago. The government had not placed an emphasis on road and highway spending in its platform, but its leaders joined in a chorus Tuesday about the need for investment.

Speaking to TG1, Toninelli said Italy would need to perform checkups on highway bridges built between the 1950s and 1970s.

The deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, the highest-profile politician in Italy’s government, said the country needed to figure out the “names and surnames of those who are guilty of these unacceptable deaths.” He also pushed back on European Union budget rules that he claimed prevented Italy from spending fully on hospitals, railways, schools and highways that “are in need of maintenance.”

“We can’t spend money because of European constraints,” Salvini said.

The Morandi Bridge was named after its engineer, Riccardo Morandi, who died in 1989, but locals often called it the Brooklyn Bridge because of its passing resemblance. The bridge ran parallel to the coastline, roughly one mile inland, crossing an industrial area lined with railroad tracks.

One engineer familiar with the bridge said there were signs of trouble. The bridge was “continuously under maintenance” and showed “grave issues of corrosion,” Antonio Brencich, an associate professor of construction at the University of Genoa, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Marco Ponti, an expert on the economics of transportation and an adviser to the Transport Ministry, said that reinforced concrete can “hold its own for 50 years.” But after that point, “it gets troublesome,” he said, because the iron bars used in the structure can corrode.

“It’s those bars that can lead reinforced concrete structures to collapse,” Ponti said in a telephone interview. “So after 50 years you need to pay close attention.”

Over the last few years Italy has experienced several other infrastructure issues, including the collapse of a highway overpass last year near the Adriatic coast that killed a couple in their vehicle. In 2016, there was a similar incident in which a collapsing bridge killed one driver.

Antonio Occhiuzzi, the director of the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Construction Technology, said that the common thread in these and other failures was the age of the infrastructure.

“Most Italian road infrastructure is more than 50 years old,” Occhiuzzi said. “Tens of thousands of bridges in Italy have practically outlived the life span for which they were designed and built.”

Modernizing roads and bridges would cost “tens of billions of euros,” he said.

Selk reported from Washington. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.