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Genoa Bridge Was Known to Be in Trouble Long Before Collapse

GENOA, Italy — Long before the bridge collapse that killed at least 39 people in Genoa on Tuesday, experts raised the alarm that the structure was deteriorating and possibly dangerous — warnings that, after the catastrophe, quickly led to a round of demands to determine who was to blame.

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Gaia Pianigiani, Elisabetta Povoledo
Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times

GENOA, Italy — Long before the bridge collapse that killed at least 39 people in Genoa on Tuesday, experts raised the alarm that the structure was deteriorating and possibly dangerous — warnings that, after the catastrophe, quickly led to a round of demands to determine who was to blame.

“The Morandi Bridge is a failure of engineering,” Antonio Brencich, a professor of engineering at the University of Genoa, said in a 2016 interview with the broadcaster Primocanale, which added that the bridge’s deficiencies were evident to many people, not just to experts.

In 2011, a report by Autostrade per l’Italia, the company that operates the highway, warned of “intense decay” of the bridge, which had needed 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 bridge.

“Alibis are useless because everyone knew,” declared a headline in Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading dailies, after the bridge collapse.

Local officials of the Five Star Movement, which is part of Italy’s new governing coalition, had opposed plans to replace the Morandi 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.

The disaster poses a challenge to the coalition, which rode a wave of populist discontent to victory 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.

The transport minister, a member of the Five Star Movement, vowed a comprehensive review and repair of Italy’s aging infrastructure, a task that promises to be time-consuming and expensive. He also suggested that the government would consider revoking the license given to Autostrade per l’Italia, responsible for maintenance of the country’s road infrastructure.

Residents recalled the sounds of hammering and drilling on the Morandi Bridge every night for years.

“It was under some sort of constant maintenance,” Domenico Infantino, a retired firefighter who lives near the bridge, said Tuesday. “And last night they were working exactly on that stretch.”

A large segment of the bridge, near where it crossed high above the Polcevera River, collapsed suddenly Tuesday, taking about 40 vehicles with it. Officials said the roadway, part of the A10 highway, dropped nearly 150 feet to the ground, showering huge chunks of reinforced concrete onto roads, a warehouse, train tracks and a river bed.

Dozens of people have been confirmed dead, including at least three children, Genoa’s chief prosecutor, Francesco Cozzi, said Wednesday. “It was not destiny,” he told reporters, adding that he would conduct a criminal investigation into the bridge failure.

Hundreds of rescue workers continued Wednesday to comb through the wreckage, using dogs, cranes, power tools and their bare hands.

Family members of travelers who are missing waited anxiously for news of their loved ones. A man identified only as Antonio told Sky News said that he was waiting for news of his brother, sister-in-law and their daughter. “They haven’t responded to phone calls and never made it to their destination,” he said. “We went to the police but they didn’t tell us anything. We’re just waiting. We want to know.”

In the 2016 interview, Brencich, the engineering professor, noted that many elements of the bridge had already been reinforced and that it needed frequent repairs, which he said should not have been necessary in a bridge of its age. He said the cost of maintenance had probably exceeded the cost of building a new span, and that the Morandi Bridge should be replaced and demolished.

The bridge, designed by Riccardo Morandi, carried far more traffic than it had been built for, experts say. Like many of Morandi’s projects, it is unusual in that it is mostly made of prestressed, reinforced concrete, even in parts that in modern bridges are made primarily of steel.

That turned out to be a serious weakness, because the concrete deteriorated quickly, Brencich said, noting that major repairs and replacement of parts began in the 1990s.

“Degradation and corrosion went at an unthinkable pace here,” Brencich said Wednesday in an interview with Rai News 24. “Well-designed bridges last 100 years and then need maintenance, not after less than 40 years.” Tie beams linking bridge parts are encased in concrete, he said, so “analyzing their fragility can never be precise.”

Stefano Marigliani, a director at Autostrade, the highway company, told Rai News 24 that the bridge “was 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.

For decades, city, regional and national planners have debated the need for more highway connections in and around Genoa — proposals that have often called for demolishing the Morandi Bridge.

When the disaster struck, “I heard a thunder and then an explosion and the apartment shook,” Infantino said. “I thought a nearby apartment had exploded, then I looked out of my kitchen window and couldn’t see the bridge anymore.”

He said he saw cars and vans lying upside down on the railway tracks.

Patrizia Belotto, who lives near Infantino, said that she no longer recognized her street.

“The bridge is part of the street,” she said, sitting on the side of a road that went under the bridge. “Well, it was.”

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