At least 37 people, including a child, were confirmed dead and many more were missing after a bridge connecting a motorway to the port city of Genoa collapsed on Tuesday during heavy storms.
Sergio Caglieris, director of the 112 emergency service, said the child was believed to be 10 years old. The death toll is expected to rise further as rescue work continued. Fourteen people have been injured, three severely.
Designed by the prominent architect, Riccardo Morandi, the bridge was an architectural breakthrough of the 1960s, praised for its use of reinforced concrete and suspension cables. Witnesses who spoke to the Italian national news agency Ansa said they saw “lightning strike the bridge" supports just before the collapse.
“It was shortly before 11:30am [1:30pm UAE] when we saw a lightning hit the bridge,” an eyewitness said. “Then we saw the bridge go down.”
Images shared by Italian firefighters showed lorries and cars trapped beneath the Morandi Bridge, a section of the A10 motorway that stretches over the Polcevera river.
Earlier, emergency services on the scene spoke of several casualties.
"There are tens of victims among those who fell into the void and those who are stuck under the rubble," Francesco Bermano, director of 118 rescue service in Genoa, told the Italian news agency Adnkronos.
Italy’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, said in a tweet that he “feared an immense tragedy” following the collapse.
“I am following with utter apprehension the developments in Genoa,” he said. “We are in touch with the highway authorities and we are on our way to the location together with vice-minister [Edoardo] Rixi”.
Hours later, 35 vehicles and three trucks were still under the rubble, according to the Civil Protection Agency. Four people were extracted alive from underneath the collapsed bridge, which had a height of about 45 metres.
The UAE government sent a cable of condolences to the Italian government on Wednesday, wishing those injured a speedy recovery.
Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister, thanked the rescuers for their efforts.
“We are following the situation of the Genoa bridge collapse minute by minute. I thank the 200 firefighters [and all the other heroes] who are already working to save lives,” he said in a tweet.
The minister appears to blame austerity for allowing the bridge to degrade over decades. Mr Salvini's League party is strongly Eurosceptic, and he hinted at political repercussions to follow the tragedy. "We should ask ourselves whether respecting budget limits is more important than the safety of Italian citizens. Obviously for me it is not."
Decrepit or not, the immediate cause of the collapse was the bad weather. The coastal region of Liguria witnessed strong rains in the past days that prompted the Civil Protection to raise the alarm. The collapse of the bridge, opened in 1967 and subject to a series of renovations, is thought to have been caused by structural weaknesses.
Autostrade – the organisation responsible for maintaining Italian motorways – said on Wednesday they had been monitoring the bridge quarterly, as required by law.
Italy's transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, however, called on the management team of the organisation to resign.
“Autostrade per l’Italia’s top management must resign,” Mr Toninelli said Wednesday in a post on Facebook. “And given that there have been serious breaches, I announce that we have activated the procedures for the possible withdrawal of the concessions and for sanctions of up to 150 million euros ($170 million),” he said.
“If they are not able to manage our highways, the state will do it,” Mr Toninelli said.
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Italian authorities said about 10 vehicles were on the motorway when it collapsed.
Private broadcaster Sky TG24 said firefighters had concerns about gas lines.
The bridge partly collapsed on a section of the Amiu Centre, where the offices of Genoa’s municipal environmental company are located. A section of the compound was destroyed and two lorries remain trapped under the rubble.
One of the main factories for the production of energy, Ansaldo Energia, was spared from the collapse. Debris fell a few metres from its main entrance, where the car park is located, Ansa reported.
Photos published by the Ansa news agency on its website showed a huge gulf between two sections of the highway.
Video captured the sound of a man screaming: "Oh god, oh, god." Other images showed a green truck that had stopped on the bridge metres short of the gaping hole in the bridge.
A Sicilian truck driver who asked not to be identified, spoke about the harrowing moments as the collapse unfolded.
“I was driving on the bridge, at one point I saw the road in front of me collapse. I think my car got stuck to a pole and this is why I didn’t fall into the abyss,” he said. “When I managed to get out of the car, I went towards the rescuers … It was an apocalypse.”
The driver said it was a miracle for him to be alive to tell the story. “It is unthinkable that something like this can happen in one of Italy’s busiest roads,” he said.