India PM visits site of bridge collapse as families mourn
By SHEIKH SAALIQ and AIJAZ HUSSAIN
MORBI, India (AP) — India’s prime minister on Tuesday visited the site in western India where a newly repaired 143-year-old suspension bridge collapsed into a river, sending hundreds plunging into the water and killing at least 135 in one of the country’s worst accidents in years.
Narendra Modi inspected the collapsed bridge in Morbi town in Gujarat state and talked to rescuers. He also visited injured people at a hospital. Security was tight as police and paramilitary soldiers blanketed the area.
Gujarat is Modi’s home state and he was already visiting it at the time of the accident. He said on Monday that he was “deeply saddened by the tragedy” and his office announced compensation for families of the dead.
Angered and bereaved families mourned the dead as attention turned to why the pedestrian bridge, built during British colonialism in the late 1800s and touted by the state’s tourism website as an “artistic and technological marvel,” collapsed Sunday evening, and who might be responsible. The bridge had reopened just four days earlier.
Police Inspector-General Ashok Yadav told The Associated Press that no one was missing according to an official tally, but emergency responders and divers continued to search Tuesday.
“We want to be on the side of caution,” Yadav said.
The officer said at least 196 people were rescued and all 10 of the injured were in stable condition.
At the accident site, at least half a dozen divers searched through the dark water.
“Silt, weeds and mud are hampering our efforts to find missing people,” said Ankit Yadav, a diver.
Gaffar Shah, the caretaker of the main Muslim graveyard in Morbi, said he helped bury 25 bodies after the disaster.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” Shah said as he sat on the graveyard’s pavement. “Entire families have been wiped out.”
Some families stood near freshly dug graves covered with marigold flowers as they prayed.
A little more than a mile (about two kilometers) away from the graveyard, at a Hindu crematorium where over a dozen bodies were brought for their last rites, the atmosphere was somber. A caretaker said they were “overwhelmed with dead bodies.” He said it was particularly painful to cremate children.
On Monday, police arrested nine people, including managers of the bridge’s operator, Oreva Group, as they began a probe into the incident.
Gujarat authorities opened a case against Oreva for suspected culpable homicide, attempted culpable homicide and other violations.
In March, the Morbi town government awarded a 15-year contract to maintain and manage the bridge to Oreva, a group of companies known mainly for making clocks, mosquito zappers and electric bikes. The same month, Oreva closed the bridge, which spans a wide section of the Machchu river, for seven months for repairs.
The bridge has been repaired several times in the past and many of its original parts have been replaced over the years.
It was reopened Oct. 26, the first day of the Gujarati New Year, which coincides with the Hindu festival season. The attraction drew hundreds of sightseers.
Sandeepsinh Zala, a Morbi official, told the Indian Express newspaper the company reopened the bridge without first obtaining a “fitness certificate.” That could not be independently verified, but officials said they were investigating.
Authorities said the structure collapsed under the weight of hundreds of people. A security video of the disaster showed it shaking violently and people trying to hold on to its cables and metal fencing before the aluminum walkway gave out and crashed into the river.
The bridge split in the middle with its walkway hanging down and its cables snapped.
It was unclear how many people were on the bridge when it collapsed. Survivors said it was so densely packed that people were unable to quickly escape when its cables began to snap.
Modi was the top elected official of Gujarat for 12 years before becoming India’s prime minister in 2014. A Gujarat state government election is expected in coming months and opposition parties have demanded a thorough investigation of the accident.
The bridge collapse was Asia’s third major disaster involving large crowds in a month.
On Saturday, a Halloween crowd surge killed more than 150 people attending festivities in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea. On Oct. 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.
India’s infrastructure has long been marred by safety problems, and Morbi has suffered other major disasters. In 1979, an upstream dam on the Machchu river burst, sending walls of water into the city and killing hundreds of people in one of India’s biggest dam failures.
In 2001, thousands of people died in an earthquake in Gujarat. Morbi, 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the quake’s epicenter in Bhuj, suffered widespread damage. According to a report in the Times of India newspaper, the bridge that collapsed Sunday was also severely damaged.
Hussain reported from New Delhi. Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.