NEW DELHI — Indian officials filed homicide charges Monday against the operators of a suspension bridge and arrested nine people after at least 134 people died when the recently renovated footbridge collapsed, sending tourists plunging into the Machchhu River in western Gujarat state.
The accident took place in Morbi, a riverside town known for its Victorian-era bridge and old town, and came amid a holiday rush. Tourists have been celebrating Diwali as well as the Gujarati New Year, which fell this year on Oct. 26.
Security footage distributed Monday showed a crowd snapping smartphone photos from the crowded bridge on Sunday evening moments before it began to sway violently before collapsing. Some officials estimated up to 400 people were packed onto the bridge — far more than the safe limit — when the suspension cables buckled and the 760-foot span gave way.
Faruk Aadam Sandhi, who lives in Morbi and lost his 18-year-old cousin Riyaz Rehman Bhatti in the accident, arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the bridge collapsed. Some visitors were still clinging onto the crumpled bridge barely above the waterline, crying out for rescue. Others crawled along its railings back to shore. More were lost in the water.
“It was chaos,” Sandhi said.
After hearing that his cousin had died in the fall but his friend Iqbal had survived, Sandhi rushed to the hospital. There, he said, corpses were laid in nearly every corner of free space while hundreds of relatives like him went from room to room, looking to claim the bodies of their loved ones. In a 10-foot-by-10-foot room used for postmortems, doctors were “overwhelmed,” Sandhi said.
The collapse amounted to one of the worst public safety accidents in India in recent years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply saddened” by the accident and said he had sought “urgent mobilization” of rescue teams to the disaster site. Modi’s office said he was set to visit the site on Tuesday.
Dilip Barasara, a Morbi resident and journalist for the Gujarati-language newspaper Sandesh, said it was the worst tragedy to strike the city of about 200,000 since a 2001 earthquake that killed 250 people there.
“All day we could hear ambulance sirens running on deserted roads,” he said. “They were either carrying the injured to the hospital, or the dead to the crematorium.”
As rescue operations continued Monday, with the Indian military deploying navy divers to look for bodies, scrutiny turned to the company tasked with renovating and operating the bridge. The contractor, Oreva, a large manufacturer known for producing clocks and electric bikes, wrapped up a six-month renovation of the bridge last week, to coincide with the Gujarati New Year. It reopened to tourists without first obtaining clearance from the government, city official Sandeepsinh Zala told the Indian Express.
Zala also criticized the bridge operators for selling as many tickets as they could without controlling the flow of people.
After a day of investigation, local police arrested nine people, including two Oreva executives, two contractors, three security guards and two ticket window clerks, said Yadav, the Gujarat police official.
In their initial legal complaint, local police did not name Oreva or any other firm, but said they would file culpable homicide charges against “the agency responsible for maintaining the bridge” and the “management agency.” A charge of culpable homicide falls short of murder and is similar to manslaughter in the U.S. legal system.
It’s unclear why the company, which specializes in manufacturing wall clocks, electric bikes and ceramic products, was contracted to operate the bridge. The company could not be reached for comment on Monday, and local media reported that its offices were deserted.
A spokesperson for Oreva said it appeared that “the bridge collapsed as too many people in the midsection of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other,” according to the Indian Express
A string of public safety accidents in India have been blamed on shoddy construction. In 2019, a footbridge near Mumbai’s historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus building buckled, killing six. In 2011, more than 30 people died when a bridge near the Himalayan hill town of Darjeeling collapsed.
The Morbi bridge, a popular tourist destination that was highlighted on Gujarat’s official tourism website, was built by a Gujarati prince in the 19th century. Waghji Thakor, the local ruler, built railways, ports, temples and the bridge, which was meant to be a technological showcase connecting two of his palaces.
Until Sunday, the bridge, with its views over the arcing Machchhu River and affordable admission of 17 rupees — about 20 cents — was a draw for visitors.
But by sundown, it had become a scene of devastation. Rescuers pulled a steady stream of bodies out of the murky water throughout the night, recalled Hardikbhai Ramesh, a 35-year-old resident. Ramesh’s sister Merabehen, 27, was lost to the river currents, but her husband survived.
Beginning at 8 a.m. Monday, hundreds of people, including Ramesh, were milling outside the city’s four small crematoriums, waiting in line to perform last rites.
Businesses were shut and the town was in mourning. Only the wails of ambulances cut through the quiet.
“I lost my sister,” Ramesh said, “because of officials’ carelessness.”
Mahesh Langa in Ahmedabad, Anant Gupta in New Delhi and Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.