Morbi bridge collapse: Toll mounts to 134, many children among dead
Time came to a standstill in Gujarat’s clock town Morbi at 6.40pm on Sunday but the chilling death meter kept ticking: 32, 60, 68, 90, 134….
By evening on Monday, the official death toll of the pedestrian suspension bridge tragedy on the Machchu river stood at 134 people, including 50 children. Unofficial estimates put the toll at 142.
Among the dead was Habibul Sheikh, a 17-year-old migrant worker from East Burdwan in Bengal. Morbi’s BJP MP, Mohan Kundaria, lost 12 members of his family.
As night fell, rescue agencies were still scouring the river. The police said on Monday night that no one else had been reported missing.
“A total of 134 persons have died in the incident while 10 are still under treatment. Fifty-six persons who were rescued alive earlier (have been) already discharged. As of now, no person is missing. However, we will continue our search-and-rescue operation tomorrow. People can contact us if they have any information about any missing person,” Rajkot range IG Ashok Kumar Yadav said on Monday evening.
Morbi town houses scores of clock makers; it is also known as the ceramic industry capital of India. The Oreva Trust, run by the well-known quartz clock manufacturer Oreva-Ajanta as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR), had bagged the contract to maintain and operate the bridge. Some of its employees were arrested on Monday.
The colonial-era bridge, reopened only five days ago after months-long repairs, was packed with sightseers enjoying holiday festivities when it ruptured on Sunday evening, sending people plunging about 33 feet into the water.
Morbi municipality chief officer Sandeep Jhala told reporters that the trust had not obtained or submitted the “fitness certificate” before reopening the bridge. The municipality is run by the BJP.
Jhala claimed that the entire municipality came to know from media reports that the bridge had already been thrown open to the public by the firm’s managing director, Jaysukh Patel. He did not explain how the hundreds who took the tickets to walk on the bridge came to know of the “secret” the municipality was not aware of: that the bridge had been thrown open.
Police officers said the swinging bridge could at best accommodate 150 people while tickets were issued by Oreva managers and staff to more than 400 people.
Technical and structural flaws and some maintenance issues were prima facie responsible for the Morbi bridge collapse, in which 134 people were killed, Rajkot range IG Yadav said.
The police have arrested nine people, including a public relations officer of Oreva and staff who issued the tickets and were present on the spot.
Till Monday afternoon, the police’s first information report, filed at Morbi City police station, had not named anyone from the top management of the firm or the Morbi municipality officials concerned.
“Of the nine arrested, two work as managers while two work as ticket booking clerks (all four employed by the Oreva group) at the bridge site. We will conduct a thorough inquiry and will not spare the guilty,” IG Yadav told a media conference.
The other five accused include two repairing contractors hired by the Oreva group and three people working at the bridge as security personnel, he said.
They have been booked under sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) of the Indian Penal Code.
CCTV footage from just before the collapse showed a group of young men taking photos while others tried to rock the suspension bridge from side to side, before they tumbled into the river below as the cables gave way, the Reuters news agency reported.
But the bridge was a swinging bridge (“jhoolta pul”) or a simple suspension bridge, and visitors do not expect swaying to bring such structures down.
The bridge’s biggest attraction was the sensation of swaying across the wide Machchu river. On Sunday, too, as countless others had done before them, some on the span spread their arms across its four-foot width, grabbing the green netting on either side and making the bridge shimmy from side to side.
The 755-foot-long pedestrian bridge had long been a tourist attraction, and a favourite meeting place for young lovers to escape parents’ prying eyes, said Devyesh Pithva, who a decade ago met the woman who became his wife on the bridge. He had visited the structure on Friday and, out of a sense of poignancy, returned to the site of the disaster on Monday.
When Pithva visited the bridge on Friday, two days before the disaster, he said there were as many as 500 people crowding on it. He waited 20 minutes for a clearing to take a photograph with his family.
“You could actually hear people breathing; it was so tight,” Pithva said. “I have an emotional bond with this bridge, and when I heard the news, I felt like I was going down with my family.”
A Gujarat bureaucrat told this correspondent on the condition of anonymity that Oreva’s managing director had not been in as much hurry to inaugurate the bridge on the Gujarati New Year (which fell on October 26) as the ruling dispensation was, ahead of the crucial state elections, expected to be held in December.
Worried by a tough three-corner electoral contest, the BJP has been on a spree inaugurating, laying foundation stones for, and announcing a variety of projects.
During his four visits through October -– each of two to three days – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid foundation stones for various industrial and other projects while chief minister Bhupendra Patel has been announcing new government schemes almost daily. Modi is now in Gujarat and is scheduled to visit the tragedy site in Morbi on Tuesday.
The Gujarat government has declared state-wide mourning on November 2 for the victims of the bridge collapse.
The bridge collapse has revived horrifying memories of August 1979 when a dam over the same river collapsed, killing over 10,000 people. It was initially passed off as an act of God while researchers later called it a man-made disaster.
Veteran Gujarat-based journalist R.K. Misra, who covered the 1979 tragedy, recalled: “The scale of that disaster was much, much bigger with tall walls of water attacking Morbi and scores of villages around it. The entire Babubhai Jashbhai Patel cabinet arrived there, while the chief minister in a unique gesture entrusted the relief and rescue work to chief secretary H.K. Khan. The chief minister allocated his decision-making powers to Khan and he was a one-point contact.”
(Additional reporting by PTI and New York Times News Service)