India’s PM to visit site of bridge collapse as families mourn


MORBI, India — India’s prime minister has prepared to visit the site in western India where a recently repaired 143-year-old suspension bridge collapsed into a river, sending hundreds plunging into the water and killing people minus 135 people in one of the country’s worst crashes in years.

Narendra Modi was expected to reach Morbi town in Gujarat state later on Tuesday. Security was tightened as police and paramilitary soldiers covered the area ahead of his visit.

Gujarat is Modi’s home state and he was already visiting it at the time of the accident. He said he was “deeply saddened by the tragedy” and his office announced compensation for the families of the dead.

Angry 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 on Sunday evening, and who could be responsible. The bridge had reopened four days earlier.

Police Inspector General Ashok Yadav told The Associated Press that no one was missing according to an official tally, but rescuers and divers continued to search on Tuesday.

“We want to be on the side of caution,” Yadav said.

The officer said at least 196 people had been rescued and the 10 injured were in stable condition.

At the crash site, at least half a dozen divers searched the murky water.

“Silt, weeds and mud are hampering our efforts to find missing people,” said Ankit Yadav, a diver.

Gaffar Shah, the keeper of the main Muslim cemetery in Morbi, said he helped bury 25 bodies after the disaster.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Shah said as he sat down on the sidewalk of the cemetery. “Entire families have been wiped out.”

Some families stood by freshly dug graves covered in marigold flowers as they prayed.

Just over a mile (about two kilometers) from the cemetery, at a Hindu crematorium where more than a dozen bodies were brought for their final rites, the atmosphere was somber. A guard said they were “overwhelmed with corpses”. He said it was particularly painful to cremate children.

On Monday, police arrested nine people, including officials from bridge operator Oreva Group, as they opened an investigation into the incident.

Gujarat authorities have opened a case against Oreva for alleged culpable homicide, attempted culpable homicide and other violations.

In March, the town hall of Morbi awarded a 15-year contract for the maintenance and management of the bridge to Oreva, a group of companies known mainly for the manufacture of clocks, mosquito killers and electric bicycles. In 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 on October 26, the first day of the Gujarati New Year, which coincides with the Hindu festival season. The attraction has attracted hundreds of tourists.

Sandeepsinh Zala, a Morbi official, told the Indian Express newspaper that the company had reopened the bridge without first obtaining a “certificate of fitness”. This could not be independently verified, but officials said they were investigating.

Authorities said the structure collapsed under the weight of hundreds of people. Security video of the disaster showed it shaking violently and people trying to cling to its cables and metal fencing before the aluminum walkway gave way and crashed into the river.

The bridge split in the middle with its dangling walkway and broken cables.

It is unknown how many people were on the bridge when it collapsed. Survivors said it was so dense that people could not escape quickly when its cables began to snap.

Modi was Gujarat’s highest elected official for 12 years before becoming India’s prime minister in 2014. A Gujarat state government election is due in the coming months and opposition parties have demanded a full investigation about the accident.

The bridge collapse was the third major disaster in Asia involving large crowds in a month.

On Saturday, a wave of Halloween crowds killed more than 150 people attending festivities in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea. On October 1, Indonesian police fired tear gas at a football match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.

India’s infrastructure has long been blighted by security issues, and Morbi has suffered other major disasters. In 1979, a dam upstream on the Machchu River burst, sending walls of water into the city and killing hundreds 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 extensive damage. According to a report by the Times of India newspaper, the bridge that collapsed on Sunday was also badly damaged.

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Hussain reported from New Delhi. Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.

ABC News

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