Italy Bridge Was Known to Be in Trouble Long Before Collapse

Emergency workers in Italy continue to dig through the bridge’s rubble, as focus turns to the structure’s troubled past.

GENOA, Italy — As deaths from the bridge failure in Genoa rose on Wednesday to 39, it became clear that while the collapse was catastrophic, it was not exactly a surprise.

Years before part of the structure dissolved in a lethal cascade of concrete and steel, it required constant repair work, and experts in Parliament, 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 a major artery that crosses the Polcevera River and connects 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.

Italy has suffered a series of bridge collapses in recent years — though none nearly as serious as Genoa’s — and 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 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.

Credit...Luca Zennaro/EPA, via Shutterstock

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

Speaking 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 measure 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 highway, saying that the project would most likely fall victim to corruption and uncontrolled costs.

Some Italian news organizations reported that Five Star officials had previously mocked concerns about the condition of the bridge, which opened in 1967.

The Five Star movement has objected repeatedly to large-scale public works projects. In a post on his blog on Wednesday titled “I Love Genoa,” Mr. Grillo reiterated his view that it was essential to “re-evaluate potential monsters,” even those built with public money for the public benefit. “Contemplating this horror I am all the more convinced that all monumental public works” must be reviewed, he wrote.

Other Five Star officials insisted on Wednesday that the party’s opposition to the highway 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 it charged heavy tolls on the many highways it manages, but did not invest 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.”

Before and After the Bridge Collapse

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.







By The New York Times. Before photo by Davide Papalini; After photo by Reuters.

Mr. Conte said that the government already had started the process to revoke Autostrade’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.

Atlantia stock fell more than 25 percent in early trading on Thursday morning, erasing more than $5 billion in market value before partially rebounding. The company issued a statement saying that government officials were acting “without any verification of the material causes of the accident,” and that the government had to follow a set of procedures to revoke the contract, which could include payment to Autostrade.

Mr. Conte said he would not await the outcome of criminal investigations into the collapse, asserting that Autostrade had the “responsibility and the duty to maintain the viaduct and allow all users to travel safely.”

Autostrade replied in a statement that it could confidently show that it had “correctly met” all contractual obligations as a concession holder.

“It’s a confidence based on monitoring and maintenance actives carried out in line with the best international practices,” the company said. “What’s more, it’s not possible at this stage to provide and reliable hypothesis for the reasons of the collapse.”

The company also said it had invested more than 1 billion euros from 2012 to 2017 to maintain and upgrade Italy’s highways.

But trouble with the Morandi Bridge, which carried far more traffic than it had been 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, forewarned a risk of collapse within 10 years — though he said on Tuesday that 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 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 the bridge had needed frequent repairs since then. That should not have been necessary in a bridge of its age, and the maintenance expense 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 debris clogging the river must be cleared urgently to avoid flooding after the next heavy rains.

Mr. Morandi designed reinforced concrete bridges around the world, and two in particular are similar in age and design to the failed bridge, including sparse use of cables suspending large spans. 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 been hit with the collapse of a viaduct in Sicily, overpasses in Lombardy and the Adriatic highway, and part 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 required replacement, 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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