As Italy moves to punish highway operator, victims of Genoa bridge collapse are buried

AP, Reuters

Italians on Friday began burying some of their dead from Tuesday’s Genoa highway bridge collapse, and the government moved to punish the bridge’s operator.

Saturday was declared a national day of mourning and was to include a state funeral at the industrial port city’s fairgrounds for those who plunged to their deaths when the 45-meter-high (150-foot) Morandi Bridge gave way Tuesday.

But many of those who lost loved ones declined to participate in the state funeral. Some cited the need to bid farewell in private; others blamed the loss of at least 38 lives on those responsible for the bridge’s safety.

The government launched a formal procedure aimed at revoking concessions held by Autostrade per l’Italia, which managed the bridge and its highway, to operate toll highways.

A statement by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the disaster was the fault of the company, which “had the obligation to look after the ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of the highway.” It added that Autostrade now had 15 days to present its counterarguments.

Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and head of the right-wing League, which governs with the 5-Star Movement, said the procedure for revoking the license will take “weeks or months.”

Some experts estimate that if it revokes the concession, the government will have to pay Autostrade up to €20 billion ($23 billion) in compensation for investments the firm has made. The government denies this.

The parent company of Autostrade, Atlantia SpA, is controlled by the holding company for the Benetton family, famous for its clothing empire.

Conte said that from now on the government will compel holders of concessions in all infrastructure to invest more of their profits in maintenance and safety.

A Genoa court will try to establish the exact cause of the bridge failure, but experts said problems with the concrete-encased cable stays were a possible culprit.

An engineering study commissioned by Autostrade last year warned about the condition of the stays, said Carmelo Gentile, a professor from Milan’s Polytechnic university who was on the team that carried it out.

Antonio Brencich, an engineering professor at Genoa University, said the bridge was found to be defective just two decades after it was opened in 1967. On Friday, he said the failure of a cable stay could have been behind the collapse. “The rupture of a cable stay is a serious working hypothesis,” Brencich said. “There are witnesses and videos that point in that direction.”

Autostrade has said it monitored the bridge on a quarterly basis, as required by law, and carried out additional checks by hiring external experts.

On Thursday, prosecutors said as many as 20 people could still be missing. Civil Protection Department officials said Friday there might only be five people missing, but the number was fluctuating.

Excavators have begun clearing large sections of the collapsed bridge. Several vehicles, abandoned by their fleeing occupants on the intact ends of the bridge, were gingerly removed Friday.

Among them was a green food delivery truck that had halted only few meters from the jagged edge of the abyss. For many, the truck at the brink became a symbol of destiny and survival.

Authorities are worried about the stability of large remaining sections of the bridge, which was built over or adjacent to several apartment buildings. Hundreds of residents in those buildings have been evacuated — and there is no guarantee they will ever return to those homes.

At a funeral for four men in their 20s, friends from the Naples seaside suburb of Torre del Greco who died while driving over the bridge on their way to a vacation in Spain, anger and sadness erupted.

“You can’t, you mustn’t die for negligence! For carelessness! For irresponsibility! For superficiality!” thundered Naples Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe in his homily.

Finding the cause of the bridge’s collapse during a driving rainstorm might take weeks or months to determine. But Genoa prosecutors say they are focusing their investigation into possible criminal blame on design flaws or inadequate maintenance on the heavily traveled bridge, which was completed in 1967 and linked two high-speed highways in the city.

“My boy and the others suffered murder,” said Roberto Battiloro, whose 29-year-old son, a videographer, was one of the four friends who died. “They died an absurd, blameless death just for going on holiday.”

Other private funerals were held in Piedmont and elsewhere.

Survivors were shocked at how they escaped with their lives.

Davide Capello, 33, a firefighter and soccer player, was driving alone when his Volkswagen Tiguan and the road it was on plunged toward the ground. He watched in shock as a car in front of him “disappeared in darkness.”

“It came down, everything, the world came down,” he said during an interview Friday, adding that he managed to walk away physically unharmed but traumatized.

His car plunged nose-first, then stopped with a crash, the air bags releasing all around him. He said he saw only gray because concrete dust covered the windows.

Capello used the touch-screen phone in the car to call colleagues at the Savona dispatch center, who sent help. He then called his girlfriend and his father, a retired firefighter, who told him to get out of the car immediately, for fear that it would destabilize or something heavy would fall on top of it.

Since neither the car’s windows nor its doors would budge, he unclipped his seat belt and climbed out through a hole in the rear of the car that was blasted open by the crash. Outside, he said, “there was an unreal silence” — destroyed vehicles and piles of broken concrete and asphalt, but no signs of life, no cries for help.

Rescue workers then helped him climb down from the rubble.

“I got out with my own legs,” said Capello, who plays for a Serie C club in Liguria. “I don’t know if anyone else managed to. I was saved by a miracle.”

“The car protected me. Besides God, the car also did its job,” Capello said.