- Geeta Pandey
- BBC News, Monday
Many in India are wondering how a popular pedestrian bridge collapsed and threw dozens of pedestrians into a river in the western state of Gujarat, killing 135 people.
The tragedy in the city of Morbi, which happened on Sunday evening and in which mostly women, children and the elderly died, is one of the worst in the last few years in that Asian country.
The suspension bridge reopened just five days earlier following repairs after 137 years of existence.
The BBC spoke to survivors, first responders, local journalists and officials to understand how this unnecessary tragedy happened.
Locals and journalists hold the company that managed the bridge responsible, and the police and local authorities are accused of mistakes.
Minutes before disaster
A little after 6:30 pm on Sunday, Mahesh Chavda and two of his friends bought tickets and climbed the ‘jhulto pul’ (suspension bridge) of Morbi.
The state tourism website describes it as a “technological marvel” and is popular with tourists: it has been Mahesh’s favorite place since childhood.
Spanning the Machchu River, the 230-meter-long structure connects the Darbargarh Palace and the Lakhdhirji College of Engineering.
The dates of its construction vary, but locals say it was built in the 1880s by a local maharaja, Waghji Thakore.
“I used to visit it with my parents, and for the last few years I have been going there every Sunday with my friends,” says Mahesh.
He was “excited” to hear last week that the bridge had reopened and the 18-year-old and his friends decided to continue their Sunday routine.
In his hospital bed with a cast around his neck, Mahesh told me that as they approached the bridge, they saw that it was crowded.
“We thought of waiting a bit, but the ticket controller said we had to continue. The bridge collapsed as soon as we stepped on it,” he says.
The section where Mahesh and his friends were standing tipped over and they were thrown into the river 15 meters below.
three teenagers they were injured but survived.
But many others did not survive and the disaster destroyed many families whose members died while walking in the river.
Many are now wondering how a tragedy of this magnitude could have happened and why it was not prevented.
The bridge was opened to the public last Wednesday, to coincide with the Gujarati New Year.
A day earlier, Jaysukh Bhai Patel, owner of the Oreva Group, a company contracted to maintain and operate the bridge since 2008, told a news conference that the renovation cost 20 million rupees ($242,000).
“Nothing will happen to the bridge for the next 8 to 10 years. And if used responsibly, the bridge will not need repairs for 15 years,” Patel said, according to the Times of India.
He is reported to have praised the quality of repairs, machinery and contractors employed by the company.
Since the accident on Sunday, the police arrested nine people connected to Oreva, including two managers and two ticket sellers on his payroll, as well as two contractors and three security guards he hired.
They are under investigation for murder without intent to murder.
At a press conference on Wednesday, prosecutor HS Panchal said the two contractors to whom the company gave metalworking work were not “qualified” for the job.
“Nevertheless, these contractors were awarded the works to repair the bridge in 2007 and 2022,” he said, adding that they were investigating the matter further.
A forensic report filed in court said the bridge’s slab was replaced during the renovation, but its cables were not, and that the old cables could not support the weight of the replaced slab.
The policeman also told the court that the wires weren “rusty” and that the tragedy could have been avoided if they had been repaired in time.
The BBC contacted Orev to ask for his response to the allegations he faces.
In court, one of the defendants, the director of the company, called the demolition of the bridge “an act of God”.
Earlier this week, a company spokesperson told the Indian Express newspaper that there were too many people on the middle part of the bridge and some people were trying to swing it.
Oreva is also accused of other mistakes, such as failing to obtain a permit from the authorities to operate the bridge.
Local municipal chief Sandipsinh Zala told reporters on Monday that Oreva did not receive a safety clearance before the bridge reopened.
But many are wondering why a company known for making watches was allowed to keep the bridge. It also manufactures lighting products, battery-powered bicycles and home appliances.
Zala did not answer our calls or messages, but the assistant in her office told me that Oreva received a contract for the management of the bridge from the municipal administration in 2008.
“Mr. Zala just renewed that contract in March,” the assistant added.
The BBC has seen a copy of the agreement which valid for 15 years, until March 2037.
Indicates that maintenance and security is the responsibility of the company that retains the revenue from ticket sales.
According to the document, the company can sell tickets at 15 rupees ($0.18) for adults and 12 rupees ($0.14) for children, but charges a premium of 2 rupees ($0.024) for each ticket.
The authorities have promised a full investigation and a special investigation team has been established to investigate the causes of the disaster.
Who is to blame for the crowd?
Apparently, the collapse was caused by the large number of people who were allowed on the bridge at the same time.
Most say that there should be between 100 and 150 people on the bridge at most, but many eyewitnesses estimate that there were more than 500 people on the bridge.
Journalist Pravin Vyas, who has lived in Morbi for a long time, lives near the bridge and says yes I’ve never seen him so full before.
“Locals and tourists gathered in large numbers as it was Sunday and the last day of the week-long Diwali holiday. Many were also happy to celebrate after two years of restrictions due to Covid-19,” he says.
“It is the management’s responsibility to see how many people can safely enter the bridge at any given time. But they benefit from allowing more people because a ticket is required to enter,” he added.
Vyas points out that the city administration and the police are also not exempt from blame.
“There have been thousands of people visiting the bridge every day since it reopened, so the authorities can’t say they didn’t know about it because Oreva didn’t ask them for permission.”
Critics wonder how the area that attracted thousands of locals and tourists every day lack of safety measures to deal with an emergency.
How come there were no police, divers, boats nearby, they ask.
The district administration insists that ensuring the safety of visitors is the company’s responsibility.
District Magistrate NK Muchhar told me he was proud of the speed with which they responded to the tragedy and the massive rescue operation they launched that saved lives.
“We had divers, swimmers, ropers, boats and firefighters here within 10 minutes,” he said.
However, many point out that the number of victims would have been much higher if there had been no rescuers, among whom were locals and a group of nearby workers who were building a new temple on the river bank.
Niranjan Das had just finished his day’s work building the temple and was sitting with his colleagues on the side of the bridge, watching the evening engulf the city.
“We saw people holding on to parts of the bridge,” Explain.
Ropes from the construction site lowered him and seven of his colleagues into the water.
“We saved eight people and removed dozens of bodies.”
It shows injuries to the hands and feet of a colleague who also participated in the rescue.
Parbat Govind, a 61-year-old who moved to Morbi two years ago and supervises the workers, was also at the temple and watched the tragedy unfold.
“Those wounds will heal,” he says. “But we will never forget what we witnessed that day. We can never forget those screams.”
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