Italy bridge was known to be in trouble long before collapse

Years before part of the structure dissolved in a lethal cascade of concrete and steel, it required constant repair work, and experts in government, industry and academia raised alarms that it was deteriorating and possibly dangerous.

Those warnings fueled an intense round of finger-pointing on Wednesday among political parties and the private company that operated the bridge, none offering an answer to a set of crucial questions that will not be answered quickly: Should everyone involved have anticipated a disaster of this scale? How were so many omens ignored? And how much of Italy’s aging, often neglected infrastructure is also at risk of failure?

“It was not destiny,” said Genoa’s chief prosecutor, Francesco Cozzi, who announced that he would conduct a criminal investigation into the failure of the Morandi Bridge.

When the bridge fell shortly before noon on Tuesday, Genoa lost one of the major arteries that cross the Polcevera River and connect the eastern and western parts of the city. The route is traveled by tens of thousands of commuters daily, and by many of the passengers and much of the freight passing through the city’s busy port, and its loss raises fears of economic damage that could take years to repair.

And experts noted that Italy has suffered a series of bridge collapses in recent years — though none nearly as serious as Genoa’s — and that many other spans are showing serious wear.

A day after the collapse, as many as 1,000 rescue workers in search of victims, alive or dead, swarmed over a tangled mass of rubble and vehicles strewn across a riverbed, roads, railroad tracks and a warehouse. More than 600 people evacuated apartment buildings, miraculously spared, under part of the bridge that remained standing. Some gathered somberly at the city’s morgue and hospitals, hoping for word on missing family members and friends, while others gazed in wonder at the empty space where the span should have been, and at the wreckage beneath it.

The disaster poses a challenge to the governing coalition, which rode to office this year on a wave of populist discontent but is led by people with little or no experience in government. Now, they must manage a crisis with the eyes of the nation on them.

peaking after a cabinet meeting in Genoa, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a 12-month state of emergency for the region, opening the way for government aid, and said that five million euros had been allocated for the most immediate needs. He added that the government would name a commissioner to lead reconstruction, a plan intended to bypass bureaucratic delays, and would craft a plan to address the nation’s aging infrastructure.

“These are tragedies that are unacceptable in a modern society, and this government will do everything to ensure that it never happens again,” he said.

The collapse prompted new scrutiny of the Five Star Movement, a partner in the governing coalition. As members of the opposition, local and national officials of Five Star, including its founder, Beppe Grillo, had opposed plans to expand Genoa’s highway network, including building a new bridge, saying that the project would most likely fall victim to corruption. Some Italian news organizations reported that Five Star officials had previously mocked concerns about the condition of the bridge, which opened in 1967.

But Five Star officials insisted on Wednesday that the party’s opposition to the project had nothing to do with the bridge collapse. Instead, they blamed Autostrade per l’Italia, the company that operated the A10 highway, including the bridge, saying the company had charged heavy tolls on the many Italian highways it managed, but not invested enough in maintenance. The company is part of the Atlantia group, owned primarily by the Benetton family.

“When we pay a toll, we imagine that part of that money will be reinvested in the maintenance of bridges and roads,” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star, told reporters in Genoa on Wednesday. “If instead of investing they divide up profits, that’s when bridges collapse.”

Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, also from Five Star, said in a Facebook post that he would seek to revoke the company’s contract to operate the A10 highway, which extends from Genoa to the French border, and fine it as much as 150 million euros, or about $170 million.

“The leaders of Autostrade per l’Italia must resign,” he added. “If they cannot manage our highways, the state will do it.” Mr. Toninelli vowed “a real Marshall Plan to secure our infrastructure,” as well as a comprehensive review and repair of Italy’s aging infrastructure, a task that promises to be time-consuming and expensive.

The cable-stayed Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed on Tuesday. This bridge uses very few stays, which were constructed from pre-stressed concrete instead of steel cables. The collapse occurred at one of the trestles, a vertical framework of upside-down V’s used for support.

Mr. Conte, the prime minister, said the government had already started the process of revoking the company’s concession.

Stefano Marigliani, a director at Autostrade, the highway company, told Rai News 24 that the bridge had been “constantly monitored and checked.”

“Something evidently didn’t work, and we are the first ones to want to have an answer on that,” he said.

The company said in a statement that it had met its responsibilities and invested more than €1 billion from 2012 to 2017 to maintain and upgrade Italy’s highways.

The statement also said Autostrade’s monitoring work had been done “in line with the best international practices” and it was premature to provide a “reliable hypothesis for the reasons of the collapse.”

But trouble with the Morandi Bridge, which carried far more traffic than it was designed for, was so widely understood before it fell that Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading dailies, declared in a headline: “Alibis are useless because everyone knew.”

In 2011, a report by Autostrade warned of “intense decay” of the bridge, which had required continuous maintenance for years. In 2012, Giovanni Calvini, then the leader of Genoa’s business federation, said that there was a risk of collapse within 10 years — though he said on Tuesday that the statement had not been meant as a prediction, but as “mere provocation” about the need to replace the span.

In 2015, Maurizio Rossi, a member of Parliament from Genoa until this year, alerted the transport minister at the time of “the serious problem of the Morandi Bridge,” questioning its safety. “I didn’t get any response,” he said on Wednesday.

And two years ago, Antonio Brencich, a professor of engineering at the University of Genoa, said in an interview with the broadcaster Primocanale, “the Morandi Bridge is a failure of engineering.”

The bridge, which opened in 1967, is unusual in that it is mostly made of pre-stressed and reinforced concrete — signatures of its designer, Riccardo Morandi, who died in 1989. Even parts that in modern bridges are usually made of steel, like the diagonal stays that help support the road from the towers, were encased in concrete.

That turned out to be a serious weakness, because the concrete deteriorated relatively quickly, and when parts are enclosed in concrete, “analyzing their fragility can never be precise,” Mr. Brencich said.

Major repairs and replacement of parts began in the 1990s, and it had needed frequent repairs since then. That should not have been necessary in a bridge of its age, and the cost of maintenance had probably exceeded the cost of building a new span, Mr. Brencich said in 2016.

“Degradation and corrosion went at an unthinkable pace here,” he said on Wednesday in an interview with Rai News 24. “Well-designed bridges last 100 years and then need maintenance, not after less than 40 years.”

In a driving rain on Tuesday, a segment of the bridge more than 200 yards long gave way suddenly, tumbling into the Polcevera River and both its east and west banks. Officials said that the roadway and about 40 vehicles on it dropped nearly 150 feet.

The toll could have been higher; the collapse narrowly missed a row of apartment houses, which had to be evacuated, still standing under the road to nowhere that now dangles high above.

Giovanni Toti, president of the Liguria region, which includes Genoa, said there was an urgent need to clear debris from the river, to avoid flooding after the next heavy rains.

Mr. Morandi designed reinforced concrete bridges around the world, and two in particular have similar design features to the one in Genoa, including sparse use of cables suspending large spans, and date from the same era. One of them, the Wadi el Kuf Bridge in eastern Libya, built from 1965 to 1972, was closed for a time last year, after inspection revealed structural issues, according to local reports.

The other, the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge, built from 1958 to 1962, crosses the mouth of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. It, too, suffered a partial collapse when hit by an oil tanker in 1964.

Since July 2014, Italy has experienced the collapse of a viaduct in Sicily, an overpass in Lombardy, an overpass on the Adriatic highway, and a span of a highway bypass in Piedmont — a sequence of “preoccupying regularity,” Antonio Occhiuzzi, the director of the National Research Council’s Institute for Construction Technology, wrote on its website.

Most of the country’s bridges are more than 50 years old, and tens of thousands of bridges have exceeded their designed life spans, he said.

The Morandi Bridge, he added, had been under constant observation because of the concerns about it, suggesting “that the current systems of monitoring and surveillance are not sufficiently advanced to avoid tragedies.”

For decades, city, regional and national planners discussed proposals for more highway connections in and around Genoa, including a new bridge on the Polcevera, and a version of the project was approved, with work scheduled to begin next year.

“The project for the second bridge was useless because it didn’t solve the traffic problem,” said Paolo Putti, an independent councilman in Genoa who was a member of Five Star while the plans were being debated. With 23 tunnels and a dozen viaducts, he said, “It is very expensive and also detrimental for the environment.”

He added that the Morandi Bridge “was going to remain, even in this project, so I can’t see why we should be blamed for it.” But other officials have said that it was clear that the existing structure had to be replaced, and that the new bridge would have made that possible — though not for several years.

“Genoa’s industry has always sought state money, and there is a tendency to large construction works with big money behind it,” Mr. Putti said. “But I want resources to be invested for people’s quality of life and in healthy entrepreneurship.”

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