GENOA, Italy — A bridge in the heart of Genoa collapsed on Tuesday, killing 37 people as dozens of vehicles and tons of concrete and steel plunged onto city streets below in a disaster that prompted an emergency review of Italy’s aging infrastructure.
Adriano Scimpioni said he had just finished his shift at the city’s garbage collection company when “I heard something like an explosion and a screech of iron, and in a second we were all covered by a cloud of dust.”
Mr. Scimpioni went outside, and with his smartphone he started broadcasting the scene on Facebook.
“I immediately thought of the victims; I held my tears, with difficulty,” he said. “We were impotent, we didn’t have the means to help those who remained underneath.” He said two of his colleagues had been killed.
Long before the collapse, experts warned that the structure was deteriorating and possibly dangerous.
The highway bridge fell by as much as 148 feet just before noon, taking about three dozen cars and three trucks with it, according to Angelo Borrelli, chief of the Civil Protection Department.
The calamity presented a serious test of Italy’s new government, a coalition of populist parties that was formed only months ago. They rode to power on a wave of anti-establishment anger, but the coalition is led by people who had little to no experience governing, and now must demonstrate that they can manage a crisis and the scrutiny that comes with it.
Giuseppe Conte, who took over as prime minister in June, traveled to the scene of the disaster. The office of the city’s public prosecutor said it would open a criminal inquiry, examining whether the collapse was because of negligence, and federal authorities indicated that they, too, would investigate.
Mr. Conte’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is a powerful populist skeptic of the European Union, said that the bloc’s budget rules might have to be lifted so Italy could overhaul its infrastructure. “When they tell us that we can’t spend our money because some E.U. constraints don’t permit it, I wonder whether these constraints make any sense,” he said.
Danilo Toninelli, the transportation minister, said the government had ordered a comprehensive safety review of Italy’s infrastructure — including viaducts and bridges built in the 1950s and 1960s during the country’s postwar boom. Much of the infrastructure, he warned, was showing signs of age. “This is what Italy needs to do, now,” he said.
In a phone interview, Antonio Occhiuzzi, director of the Institute for Construction Technology for Italy’s National Research Council, said that most of the nation’s infrastructure “needs to be carefully re-examined” because much “was at the end” of its useful life span. He added, “In some cases it can be reinforced, in other cases it will have to be demolished and rebuilt completely.”
Mr. Occhiuzzi said that civil and structural engineering projects in Italy were complicated by a national patrimony that dates to antiquity. “Our position, typically, is to try and conserve rather than demolish and rebuild, as happens in other countries,” he said.
The collapse of the Genoese bridge was a serious alarm, he said, “because it is not an isolated case — in the last three years, a number of bridges have collapsed in Italy, and they are all around 50 years old.”
Francesco Faccini, a lecturer at the University of Genoa and an expert on floods and landslides, said “significant urbanization” of the city’s flood plains along with, at times, irrational urbanization, led to channels being narrowed and streams diverted. The result, he said, was a situation where flooding became more common, especially as the intensity of downpours has grown in recent years.
In the Sampierdarena neighborhood under the fallen bridge, gas and electricity were shut off as workers scrambled to check on the security of buildings. The electricity was later restored.
Giovanna Santacroce, a 25-year-old ice cream vendor who lives a few hundred yards from the bridge, said she heard what sounded like thunder. “Then the light went off for a second and I peeked out of the window and couldn’t see the bridge anymore,” she said. “On the street people were crying, debris was everywhere. They ordered us to leave the house, and we don’t know when we’ll be able to return.”
Pietro Marzullo, a 31-year-old elder care attendant who was driving in the area when the disaster occurred, said he helped a woman in shock get away moments later. “Small concrete blocks were scattered everywhere, rolling down the street and around us,” he said.
The national police noted that there was a “violent cloudburst” about the time the section fell, and some witnesses said the bridge was struck by lightning just before it collapsed, though it was not clear whether the storm contributed to the failure.
Edoardo Rixi, the deputy transportation minister, said that the bridge had shown some “signs of problems” in the past. “A bridge like that doesn’t collapse because of a lightning bolt, or a storm,” he said. “Those who are responsible must be found.”
Mr. Rixi said the entire bridge would be demolished, “with serious repercussions on traffic, and problems for citizens and companies.”
Survivors marveled that the toll was not higher.
“I saw the bridge collapse in front of my eyes; the debris from the collapse landed 20 meters away from my car,” Davide Ricci, who was driving nearby along the bank of the Polcevera River, told the Genoese newspaper Il Secolo XIX. “It felt as if electricity was traveling from above downward, as if one of the beams had been struck by lightning.”
One motorist, Corrado Cusano, told the Italian channel Rai News that he had just driven across the bridge when “I turned around and saw the bridge collapsing.”
“We were stuck in traffic,” he said. “There was a long line of cars, and I only saw the bridge collapsing behind me and then I couldn’t see any cars anymore.”
A stretch of the road, estimated by some witnesses to be more than 300 feet long, fell to earth in a huge dust cloud. Remarkably, some people driving on the bridge walked away unharmed.
“I am a miracle,” one of them, Davide Capello, told the Turin newspaper La Stampa. He said he was driving to the city when “I heard a noise first and everything collapsed.” His car fell and came to rest wedged between massive pieces of debris, yet he was unhurt.
Cars and trucks were abandoned on the road, just short of the new chasm; their occupants had fled on foot.
Jagged chunks of debris the size of houses protruded at sharp angles from a riverbed, and huge pieces of the road, still partly propped up by support pillars, were left dangling. The scene was strewn with cars and trucks that had been damaged in the collapse, while rescue workers struggled in a driving rain to reach anyone who might be trapped.
Firefighters with rescue baskets were hoisted by cranes onto the piled wreckage to pull people from the rubble. Others loaded the injured into paramedic helicopters, or picked their way across the mounds of debris with dogs trained to sniff and listen for people.
Still others used power tools to cut their way through blocks of concrete and steel reinforcement to reach victims. In all, more than 240 firefighters took part in the rescue efforts, officials said.
“I drive on that bridge four times a day and I know that they do maintenance work on that bridge every single night,” said Edoardo Serra, a pharmacist in Genoa who was to return to the city center an hour after the bridge collapsed. “They normally closed one direction to traffic and allowed double circulation on the other.”
The span is known as the Morandi Bridge, for the engineer who designed it, Riccardo Morandi, who died in 1989. Like many of his signature structures, the bridge, which opened in 1967, was built of reinforced concrete. Local news media reported that it had been under repair, though the nature of that work was not immediately clear.
“It was a bold structure, designed for a volume of traffic that was much lower than it is today,” said Diego Zoppi, a Genoese architect. The bridge, he said, required constant maintenance because it was an essential traffic hub for the city, connecting Genoa’s eastern and western suburbs with highways to major cities in the north, like Milan.
Mr. Morandi designed several major bridges using similar designs and materials, primarily in Italy but also in Libya, Colombia, Ecuador and elsewhere.
Giacomo Giampedrone, a councilor for civil protection and infrastructure in Liguria, the region that includes Genoa, said in a telephone interview that the bridge and its maintenance were the responsibility of Autostrade per l’Italia, a highway operator controlled by Atlantia, an Italian holding company whose main shareholder is the Benetton family.
Autostrade per l’Italia and Atlantia did not respond to emails requesting comment, and their media offices were closed on Tuesday. Atlantia shares fell by 5.39 percent on the Milan stock market on Tuesday.
Autostrade’s director for the area of Genoa, Stefano Marigliani, told the Italian news agency ANSA that the collapse of the bridge “was unexpected and sudden with respect to the monitoring that the bridge was subject to.”
“There was no forewarning,” he said.
The bridge carried the A10 highway — a major east-west artery through the port city that extends west along the coastline to the border with France — across the Polcevera River. It was one of two just major highway bridges that span that waterway, in the western part of the city, and officials warned that the loss of the crossing could significantly affect the movement of people and goods.
The impact of the collapse “will be devastating for the local economy,” and the city would be paralyzed for years, said Enrico Musso, an economics professor at the University of Genoa, and a center-right politician. A long contested project to build a new highway had only recently been approved after years of fierce debate, in part because of concerns about the Morandi Bridge had intensified. “We knew it was not eternal,” Mr. Musso said.
As night fell, the only audible sound was that of rescue workers drilling through the concrete blocks to look for more vehicles buried under the rubble, illuminated by large rescue lights.
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