The death toll from a suspension bridge collapse in India on Monday rose to 134, with many of the victims children, as authorities opened a criminal case into one of the deadliest accidents in the country in the past 10 years.
Footage from just before the collapse showed a group of young men taking photos while others tried to sway the bridge before they tumbled into the river below as the cables holding it together gave way.
The colonial-era footbridge over the Machchhu River in the centre of Morbi town was packed with sightseers enjoying holiday festivities when it collapsed on Sunday evening, plunging people about 10 metres (33 feet) into the river.
Some 400 people had bought tickets to get onto the bridge to celebrate the Diwali and Chhath Puja festivals, less than a week after the span was reopened following renovations.
About 35 victims were younger than 14, according to a list of the deceased seen by Reuters. About 170 people had been rescued by the morning.
“People were hanging from the bridge after the accident, but they slipped and fell into the river when it collapsed,” said Raju, an eyewitness who gave only one name. “I could not sleep the entire night as I had helped in the rescue operation. I brought a lot of children to the hospital.”
Senior government official NK Muchhar said the death toll hade gone up to 134. Another official said at the site that the river’s muddy waters were hampering rescue work and that there might be people trapped under the mangled remains of the bridge.
Police registered a criminal case against unnamed persons responsible for the renovation, maintenance, and management of the bridge. The government has formed a five-member team to investigate the disaster.
Gujarat-based electrical appliances maker Oreva group, known for its Ajanta clocks, had been in charge of maintaining the bridge for 15 years, said Sandeepsinh Zala, the chief officer of Morbi municipality.
“They did not give us any information that they were reopening the bridge,” Zala said. “We have not issued any fitness certificate to them.”
Jayrajsinh Jadeja, a local lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, blamed Oreva for selling tickets without restrictions and said overcrowding led to the bridge collapse.
The bridge was earlier maintained by the local municipality, which limited the number of people on the bridge at one time to 20, he said.
An Oreva spokesperson did not answer calls and text messages from Reuters.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted an Oreva spokesperson as saying: “While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat, expressed his condolences to the victims’ families.
“In this hour of grief, the government is with the bereaved families in every manner,” he said. “The Gujarat government is carrying out relief and rescue operations since yesterday. The central government too is extending all help to the state government.”
The pedestrian bridge is 1.25 m (4.1 ft) wide and spans 233 m (255 yds) connecting the Darbargadh Palace heritage hotel and the town. It was built in 1877 when India was a British colony.
Opposition politicians said the disaster exposed the lack of oversight of infrastructure in the country.
“Not just extremely sad on bridge collapse in Morbi but also very angry. Because it was a tragedy in waiting,” Gurdeep Singh Sappal, a member of the Congress party, wrote on Twitter. “For some time now, bridge collapse, roads caving-in, dams breaching are happening quite often.”
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