By Sumit Khanna
MORBI, India (Reuters) - Indian police arrested nine people on Monday, including ticketing clerks and contractors, as they investigate the collapse of a foot bridge in which at least 134 people, including many children, were killed.
CCTV footage from just before the collapse showed a group of young men taking photos while others tried to rock the suspension bridge in Morbi from side to side, before they tumbled into the river below as the cables gave way.
The colonial-era bridge over the Machchhu River was packed with sightseers enjoying holiday festivities when it ruptured on Sunday evening, sending people plunging about 10 metres (33 feet) into the water.
Ashwin Mehra, who was undergoing treatment after sustaining leg and back injuries, said he and six others had reached the shore by holding onto the bridge's metal railings and netting.
"There were about 15-20 boys aged between 20-25 years who were shaking the bridge," he told Reuters TV partner ANI. "...We heard some sounds three times, and the sixth time the cable (of the bridge) suddenly snapped."
A senior police official said nine people had been arrested, including managerial staff, ticketing clerks and three security guards, for failing to regulate crowds before the bridge crumpled.
Two people awarded a contact to repair the structure, originally built in 1877, were among those arrested, Ashok Kumar Yadav said. He said there were likely to be more arrests.
Shock and grief at the tragedy was mixed with anger from some of the loved ones of those killed and members of the opposition in the western state of Gujarat, where elections are due by early next year.
"Not just extremely sad on bridge collapse in Morbi but also very angry. Because it was a tragedy in waiting," Gurdeep Singh Sappal, a member of the Congress party, wrote on Twitter.
"For some time now, bridge collapse, roads caving-in, dams breaching are happening quite often."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hails from the state where the disaster occurred, is due to visit the small industrial town on Tuesday, a lawmaker said.
Local officials told Reuters that Oreva, a company which makes clocks and electrical items that was in charge of the bridge, had not informed the authorities that it would be reopened last week after repairs, adding that no certificate that it was fit for public use had been issued.
An Oreva spokesperson did not answer calls and text messages from Reuters.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted an Oreva spokesperson as saying: "While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other."
Graphic: Gujarat bridge collapse https://graphics.reuters.com/INDIA-ACCIDENT/BRIDGE/gdvzqrnxypw/graphic.jpg
'HOUR OF GRIEF'
Some 400 people had bought tickets to get onto the bridge to celebrate the Diwali and Chhath Puja festivals.
About 35 victims were under 14, according to a list of the deceased seen by Reuters. About 170 people had been rescued by the morning.
"People were hanging from the bridge after the accident, but they slipped and fell into the river when it collapsed," said Raju, an witness who gave only one name. "I could not sleep the entire night as I had helped in the rescue operation. I brought a lot of children to the hospital."
Narendrasinh Jadeja, whose friend lost seven members of his family, including four children, said: "I cannot express how angry and helpless I am feeling."
Senior government official N.K. Muchhar said the death toll had gone up to 134. Another official said at the site that the river's muddy waters were hampering rescue work and that there might be people trapped under the remains of the bridge.
Oreva, a Gujarat-based company, had been in charge of maintaining the bridge for 15 years, said Sandeepsinh Zala, the chief officer of Morbi municipality.
"They did not give us any information that they were reopening the bridge," Zala said. "We have not issued any fitness certificate to them."
Jayrajsinh Jadeja, a local lawmaker from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, blamed Oreva for selling tickets without restrictions and said overcrowding led to the bridge collapse.
The bridge was previously maintained by the local municipality, which limited the number of people on the bridge at one time to 20, he said.
Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat, expressed his condolences to the victims' families.
"In this hour of grief, the government is with the bereaved families in every manner," he said at an event in Gujarat.
The bridge is 1.25 metres (4 feet) wide and spans 233 metres (255 yards) and connected the Darbargadh Palace heritage hotel and the town.
(Writing by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Kim Coghill, Gerry Doyle, Edmund Klamann and Alison Williams)