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Morbi bridge: Nine arrested after at least 141 killed in collapse disaster

Indian police arrested nine people on Monday after the collapse of a footbridge which has killed at least 141 people.

The bridge, which only re-opened last week after repairs, ruptured on Sunday evening, sending people plunging into the Machchhu River below in prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

Those arrested — all associated with the Oreva group, the firm contracted to maintain and operate the bridge in Morbi town — are being investigated for culpable homicide among other serious violations, senior police officer Ashok Kumar Yadav said in a statement.

Indian rescue personnel conduct search operations after the bridge collapse (AFP via Getty Images)
Indian rescue personnel conduct search operations after the bridge collapse (AFP via Getty Images)
People light candles to pay tribute to victims of Sunday’s bridge collapse in Morbi (AP)
People light candles to pay tribute to victims of Sunday’s bridge collapse in Morbi (AP)

Those arrested include two managers of Oreva Group, two ticketing clerks, two contractors engaged by the company for repair work and three security guards responsible for controlling footfall on the bridge.

“We won’t let the guilty get away, we won’t spare anyone,” Mr Yadav said.

The colonial-era bridge that was built in the 1800s was packed with sightseers celebrating the Diwali and Chhath Hindu festivals when the cables snapped, sending people plunging about 33ft into the water.

CCTV footage from just before the bridge ruptured showed a group of young men taking photos while others tried to rock the suspension bridge from side to side, before they tumbled into the river below as the cables gave way.

The incident in Mr Modi’s home state, where he governed as the chief minister for 12 years, has triggered calls for an investigation and accountability as devastated families searched for missing people and mourned the deaths of their loved ones.

The Oreva Group – a clock-making company – was involved with the bridge since 2008. It was given the responsibility of full management of the bridge in the latest agreement signed by Ajanta Manufacturing Pvt Ltd, Oreva Group’s flagship company.

A probe is being conducted to investigate if the bridge opened without proper permission and a fitness certificate from municipal authorities.

Mr Modi, who is on a three-day visit to election-bound Gujarat, will visit the accident site in Morbi. The prime minister also chaired a high-level meeting in Gandhinagar to review the ongoing investigation and rescue and relief efforts.

Workers use machinery to remove the debris of a pedestrian bridge that collapsed in Morbi (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Workers use machinery to remove the debris of a pedestrian bridge that collapsed in Morbi (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“A decision has been taken in this meeting to observe a state-wide mourning in Gujarat on the next date, November 2, in mourning for the deceased who died in the tragedy of Morbi,” Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel said after the meeting.

On Monday, US president Joe Biden joined India’s neighbours and allies to offer condolences over the incident. Mr Biden said he and his wife Jill sent their “deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones during the bridge collapse in India, and join the people of Gujarat in mourning the loss of too many lives cut short. In this difficult hour, we will continue to stand with and support the Indian people”.

Visuals from the accident site in news channels continued to show pictures of devastated family members searching for missing relatives, and others racing to overcrowded hospitals searching for their loved ones.

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 said. “We heard some sounds three times, and the sixth time the cable (of the bridge) suddenly snapped.”

About 35 victims were under 14, according to a list of the dead, 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, a 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.”

Rescuers on boats search in the Machchu river next to a cable bridge that collapsed in Morbi (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Rescuers on boats search in the Machchu river next to a cable bridge that collapsed in Morbi (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It is still not clear how many people were on the bridge when it collapsed and how many remained missing, but survivors said it was so densely packed that people were unable to quickly escape when its cables began to snap.

“There were just too many people on the bridge. We could barely move,” Sidik Bai, 27, said while recovering from injuries in a hospital in Morbi.

An official at the site said that the river’s muddy waters were hampering rescue work and that there might be people trapped under the remains of the bridge.

A disturbing video captured the exact moments when a pedestrian suspension bridge started violently shaking and snapped away (Screengrab/ Srinivas BV)
A disturbing video captured the exact moments when a pedestrian suspension bridge started violently shaking and snapped away (Screengrab/ Srinivas BV)

Sandeepsinh Zala, the chief officer of Morbi municipality, said of Oreva: “They did not give us any information that they were reopening the bridge. We have not issued any fitness certificate to them.”

Jayrajsinh Jadeja, a local lawmaker from Mr 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.

Mr Modi 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.

Additional reporting by agencies