Manager at India bridge company says collapse was ‘will of god’ as details of botched repairs emerge

A manager at the company responsible for the maintenance of the colonial-era suspension footbridge that collapsed in Gujarat on Sunday, killing at least 13 people, has said the incident was the “will of god”.

More details are emerging about the management and renovations of the bridge in Morbi, which reopened after extensive works just four days before the disaster.

Deepak Parekh, a manager with the Oreva company charged with carrying out the renovation project and one of nine people arrested since the collapse, told a local court on Wednesday that it was the “will of god that such an unfortunate incident took place".

Mr Parekh, along with another manager and two sub-contractors who repaired the bridge, have been remanded in police custody until at least Saturday, while five others are being kept in judicial custody.

A First Information Report (an initial chargesheet issued by police in India) states that the accident occurred due to faulty construction or maintenance of the bridge, in addition to the bridge operators’ negligence and carelessness.

Police say the renovations of the bridge involved the addition of heavier aluminium panelling to its walkway, but that the core structure was not changed or stress tested in any way before the public reopening on 26 October.

The main cable of the 233-metre long suspension bridge, built in 1879, was not replaced by the company despite being significantly “rusted”, said PA Zala, the deputy superintendent of police for Morbi.

"As part of maintenance and repair, only the platform was changed. The bridge was on a cable and no oiling or greasing of the cable was done," the officer told the court, according to NDTV.

"From where the cable broke, the cable was rusted. Had the cable been repaired, the incident would not have happened."

The contractors hired for carrying out the repair works were allegedly unqualified for the maintenance of public infrastructure, a prosecutor in the case has said. Despite this, the contractors were awarded projects to repair the bridge in 2007 and then in 2022.

The collapsed Jhulto Pul, a pedestrian suspension bridge, during a rescue operation in Morbi (EPA)
The collapsed Jhulto Pul, a pedestrian suspension bridge, during a rescue operation in Morbi (EPA)

In the aftermath of the collapse, some public outrage has focussed on people seen shaking the packed bridge in the moments before it came down. Surveillance footage from 6.31pm on Sunday showed people enjoying themselves and taking selfies on the bridge at the time it collapsed into the Machchu River below.

But police now believe the old cable snapped as it could not take the weight of the new flooring made with four-layered aluminium sheets.

They say the renovated bridge was inaugurated on 26 October without prior government approval or quality testing.

The Oreva group had been involved in work on the bridge since 2008, but was given almost exclusive responsibility for it in a new agreement signed on 7 March this year.

Sandeepsinh Zala, a Morbi official, told The Indian Express that the company reopened the bridge without first obtaining a “fitness certificate”.

At the reopening ceremony, Oreva’s managing director Jaysukhbhai Patel told reporters that the bridge would not need any major work for “eight to 10 years” and added that people can enjoy “a carefree adventure”.

Since the collapse, Mr Patel has been missing from the public eye. His company’s farmhouse in Ahmedabad city is reportedly shut and unoccupied.

Volunteers carry a victim after a cable bridge across the Machchu river collapsed in Morbi town (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Volunteers carry a victim after a cable bridge across the Machchu river collapsed in Morbi town (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Gujarat government said it has constituted a five-member committee to probe the collapse.

“An FIR has been registered against the maintenance and management agencies of the bridge” under three sections of the Indian Penal Code, said police inspector Prakashbhai Dekavadiya.

No government officials have yet faced any police action in relation to the awarding of the bridge maintenance contract.

Gujarat state on Wednesday observed a day of mourning, with the national flag at half-mast in government buildings, as scuba divers still combed through the river.

A total of 196 people were rescued and all 10 of the injured were in stable condition, officials said, adding that no one was missing according to their tally.

Prime minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday inspected the collapsed bridge and paid a visit to the injured people at a hospital. Mr Modi, who previously served as the state’s chief minister, also chaired a meeting with officials and urged for a detailed investigation.

Opposition parties have demanded the formation of a judicial commission under the country’s Supreme Court to probe the bridge collapse.