By Sameer Yasir
At least 140 people were killed after a century-old pedestrian bridge collapsed in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Sunday evening, sending hundreds plunging into the Machchhu River, officials said.
About 350 people were on and around the bridge, a major tourist attraction, at the time of the collapse, said Brijesh Merja, a minister in the Gujarat government. A large number of those who died were children, women and older people, according to officials.
The bridge collapsed four days after it was reopened to the public and about seven months after the start of renovation work. Built in 1880, during the Victorian era, it is about 755 feet long.
Video broadcast by local television channels showed people swimming to a portion of the bridge suspended in the water, with more than a dozen struggling to cling to the edge as they waited to be rescued. Children and women could be heard crying for help.
Rescue workers scrambled to pull victims from the river. Video footage released by the Gujarat government showed small boats working through the night to help with the search and rescue, and pulling bodies out of the water. The office of the district collector in Morbi, the district where the bridge collapsed, said 170 people had been rescued so far.
The collector’s office said that in addition to the national disaster response force, teams from the Indian army, navy and air force were on the way to help with the rescue, which was complicated as night had fallen and the river was dark.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is from Gujarat and was in the state for a three-day visit, announced cash compensation for the families of those killed or injured.
“My heart is with the victims in Morbi,” Modi said at a public event Monday. “I have rarely felt this kind of pain in my life.”
The bridge was particularly busy over the weekend, as the Hindu festival season drew a larger number of tourists and families to the recently reopened attraction. Local media reports suggested that the bridge was over capacity when it snapped. The Morbi district is home to thousands of factories that make ceramic tiles, bathroom products and wall clocks, and dozens of migrant factory workers were on the bridge when it fell.
Attention has shifted to whether the private company that runs the bridge and sells tickets for passages across it reopened the span to the public before the holiday season without the proper safety checks. Municipality officials told local news media that the bridge might have been opened without a “fitness certificate.”
State officials said they would investigate the matter. Harsh Sanghavi, Gujarat’s junior minister for home affairs, said criminal cases had been filed in relation to the collapse, without clarifying who was being booked.
India’s infrastructure has long been marred by safety concerns. Allegations of corruption have also swirled around the huge amounts of money channeled to construction and maintenance, depriving Indians of quality roads and bridges and leading to frequent mass-casualty episodes.
Gujarat, which has a population of about 60 million people, is in the middle of a harshly fought election season, with a vote for the local government expected in the coming months. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been at the helm of the state for the past two decades, and his 12 years as chief minister in Gujarat cemented Modi’s rise to national office.