Shocking surveillance footage showed at least one person seemingly shaking the bridge deliberately just seconds before it snapped, plunging dozens of people into the river.
On Sunday evening, the British-era cable bridge in Gujarat Morbi town collapsed on the Machchhu river following overcrowding by hundreds of people, something which has been blamed on mismanagement and negligence.
The death toll could mount with military teams working round the clock to pull out people from the river, officials said.
Around 500 people, including women and children, were on the bridge that is locally known as the “Jhulta Pool” (shaking bridge), at the time of the tragedy.
The surveillance footage showed young men clicking pictures while standing on the suspension bridge with green wire mesh on its sides, and some holding on to the sides as the bridge slowly oscillated.
A man in a white shirt is seen holding the mesh on both sides and violently shaking the bridge from side to side before it gave way, leading people to plunge into the river below.
The video corroborated eyewitness accounts that said some people shook the bridge “intentionally”.
Vijay Goswami, who was on the bridge shortly before the incident, escaped the tragedy after leaving the spot when he found it too dangerous due to overcrowding.
“There was a huge crowd on the bridge. My family and I were on the bridge when some youths started shaking it intentionally. It was impossible for people to stand without holding any support. Since I had a feeling that it may prove dangerous, my family and I came back after covering some distance on the bridge,” Mr Goswami told television channels in Ahmedabad.
Another eyewitness, identified only by his first name Raju, said: “People were hanging from the bridge after the accident, but they slipped and fell into the river when it collapsed.”
“I could not sleep the entire night as I had helped in the rescue operation. I brought a lot of children to the hospital.”
The bridge was shut for seven months before being reopened on 26 October. The bridge opened without a fitness certificate from the civic authorities, reported NDTV.
Gujarat home minister Harsh Sanghavi said a criminal case was registered against the agency that handled the maintenance of the 230m-long bridge.
A five-member, high-powered committee is probing the collapse. “A case has been registered under charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and intentional act causing death against whoever is found responsible,” he said.
A major rescue and search effort is ongoing by government officials, including teams from the army, navy, air force and the National Disaster Response Force, almost 18 hours after the incident.
At least 177 survivors were pulled from the river, said officials, who pointed out that poor visibility at night made it difficult to carry out rescue operations at full force.
Prime minister Narendra Modi, in whose home state the incident happened, is scheduled to visit the site of the mishap on Tuesday to take stock of the situation. He said he was “deeply saddened by the tragedy” and his office has announced compensation to the families of the dead.
“Rarely in my life, would I have experienced such pain. On one hand, there is a pain-riddled heart and on the other hand, there is the path to duty,” said Mr Modi, who served as the state’s chief minister for 12 consecutive years before becoming prime minister.
India’s neighbours and allies joined him in offering their condolences and expressed grief over the incident.
UK foreign secretary James Cleverly, who was in India last week, said the “terrible bridge collapse” has caused him pain.
“We are watching developments in Morbi, Gujarat where a terrible bridge collapse has caused many deaths. Having just returned from India, it pains me to see such a tragedy in a country where I just experienced such warmth and generosity. India is in my thoughts,” he said.
“We grieve with you,” Bhutan prime minister Lotay Tshering wrote on Twitter, saying the news comes even before they could comprehend deaths in South Korea.
Even before we could comprehend the South Korea tragedy, news of Gujurat bridge collapse hits us. People of Bhutan & I pray situation is less dampening than what we hear. My heartfelt prayers to @narendramodi & India. Wishing strength and endurance to all. We grieve with you!
— PM Bhutan (@PMBhutan) October 30, 2022
“I am deeply saddened by the tragic incident of bridge collapse in Morbi, Gujarat. We extend heartfelt condolences to the Government and people of India on the loss of precious lives. Our thoughts & prayers are with the bereaved families,” said Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister of neighbouring Nepal.
The incident comes as the state government is slated for elections in the coming months and opposition parties are expected to use the incident to criticise Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state.
Opposition parties have demanded an investigation into the collapse, saying the bridge was reopened without having safety clearance. The claim could not be independently verified, but the state government said it has formed a special team to investigate the disaster.
Gujarat’s civic body officials told local news media that the bridge — built in 1880 during the Victorian era by the British and touted by the state government as an “engineering marvel” — might have been opened by the private company that runs it without a “fitness certificate”.
The bridge collapse is Asia’s third major disaster involving large crowds and hundreds of deaths in a month.
On Saturday, more than 150 people, mostly young, were killed following the Halloween crowd surge in Itaewon, a neighbourhood in Seoul, South Korea.
On 1 October, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.