Indian police arrest nine after bridge collapse kills 134 people

Witnesses say renovated Victorian-era structure may have been overcrowded for religious festival as officials say it should not have been open to public

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Police in India's western Gujarat state on Monday arrested nine people involved in the renovation of a century-old bridge that collapsed, plunging hundreds into a river and killing at least 134.

The 233-metre bridge over the Machchhu river in Morbi district snapped on Sunday. Scores of survivors clung to the wreckage, shouting for help.

The renovation work was undertaken by Oreva Group, which specialises in wall clocks and electric bikes, but has no experience in infrastructure development, according to local media reports.

It was awarded a 15-year contract to repair, maintain and manage the bridge, known as “Jhoolta Pul” or hanging bridge, in 2020.

The renovation started seven months ago. The company was bound by its contract to keep the bridge shut for at least eight to 12 months for maintenance and repairs but it was reopened on October 26.

Ashok Kumar Yadav, the region's senior police officer said nine people in connection with the tragedy, including Oreva staff.

“They were all charged for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. These include managers at Oreva Group, ticket clerks and the contractors involved in repair work,” Mr Yadav said.

The state's home minister Harsh Sanghavi earlier in the day had said that a criminal case was registered under the Culpable Homicide Act and manslaughter charges were filed.

A five-member team has been formed to investigate the incident and review findings daily.

The Victorian-era bridge had been closed for renovations for six months.

The Oreva Group charged 17 rupees (21 cents) for a ticket but officials told local television channels that the group did not have permission to reopen the bridge and a municipality test certificate for the structure was not provided.

More than 500 people were on the Morbi suspension bridge when it snapped, throwing dozens into the river, witnesses said.

The capacity of the bridge was reportedly 150 people, but more than 500 tickets were sold, mostly for women and children who had gathered to perform rituals for the Hindu festival of Chhath puja and Gujarati new year.

The rescue work continued all night as divers retrieved bodies from the river that is believed to be more than four metres deep. By early on Monday, officials said their hopes of finding survivors were dwindling.

“We have recovered 134 bodies. The rescue work is over. We don't expect to retrieve any more bodies,” Morbi police chief P Dekavadiya told The National.

Rescuers scour the river Machchhu on Monday. AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is on a three-day tour in the election-bound state, will visit the site on Tuesday.

“I assure the citizens of the country that there would be no laxity in rescue and relief work … on the day of unity, this incident is encouraging us to unite together and face this difficult situation,” Mr Modi said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin extended his condolences to the families of the people who lost their lives.

“Dear Ms President, dear Mr Prime Minister, please accept my heartfelt condolences over the tragic bridge collapse in the state of Gujarat,” Mr Putin said in a message published on the Kremlin website.

Saudi Arabia also sent condolences.

Survivors and witnesses told local news channels that the bridge was overcrowded and that some people were shaking it.

Survivor Mehul Raval said there were more than 300 people on the bridge.

“The bridge suddenly collapsed. All the people fell down. The bridge collapsed mainly because it was overcrowded,” Mr Raval, who has been admitted to Morbi Civil Hospital, told local reporters.

Vijay Goswami had visited the suspension bridge with his family but returned half way through the crossing out of fear after young people in the crowd started shaking it, making it difficult to walk.

“My family and I were on the bridge when some youths started shaking it. It was impossible for people to stand without holding any support. I had a feeling that it may prove dangerous, so we came back after covering some distance on the bridge,” Mr Goswami told local news media.

Political opposition parties called the incident a “man-made tragedy” and demanded a judicial inquiry.

“This is not a natural accident, it is a man-made tragedy. The BJP government of Gujarat is directly guilty of this heinous crime,” said Randeep Singh Surjewala, an Indian National Congress member of parliament.

The Communist Party of India said the BJP government was to blame for the tragedy.

“Deepest condolences to families of those who lost their loved ones in this tragedy. The injured must receive medical treatment on top priority. Lives must be saved. Then, accountability must be fixed. The Gujarat government is answerable,” Sitaram Yechury said.

Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit leader and independent legislator from the state, also questioned the contract awarded to the group and the time of the reopening of the bridge.

“It seems fishy, may be elections are around, so the bridge was opened early to show how quickly it was renovated to give an impression and lure voters,” Mr Mevani told the New Delhi Television channel.

“It is a concern how a company without any track record was given this task, without fitness certificate, how could they allow people to go around?”

Updated: October 31, 2022, 2:39 PM