The public shock and fury surrounding one of the biggest infrastructure tragedies in Italian history is about to get worse. Days after a 200 meter section of the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed, killing 43 people, it emerged that Italian transport ministry officials were warned of weaknesses in the viaduct and corrosion in the bridge’s cables some six months ago.
According to a study by Autostrade per l’Italia, the country’s biggest motorway toll company, some of the columns supporting the bridge were estimated to have lost 20% of their resistance capacity and needed repair the FT reported. On Monday, the transport ministry, Autostrada and the architect tasked with investigating the collapse confirmed that the findings had been discussed by civil servants in February.
The revelation that the government was aware of the structural weaknesses in the bridge will undermine attempts by the populist coalition to pin blame for the disaster squarely on Autostrade and its parent company Atlantia whose shares have been crushed in recent days amid concerns the government would nationalize the company’s contract in retaliation. It will also hinder efforts to blame EU austerity for preventing Italy from keeping its infrastructure up to date.
In a confusing back and forth, the government which came to power in May (and sent Italian bonds into a tailspin) told Autostrada that it intended to revoke its license to operate about half of Italy’s toll motorways, and refused an initial offer by the company of €500m for repairs and compensation. The price of shares in Atlantia fell as much as 9% on Monday before rebounding into the close, after tumbling the most on record last week.
Furthermore, the objectivity of the official investigation by the transport ministry into the collapse has also been questioned after it emerged that the ministry appointed the same official who assessed the Autostrade proposals to head the ministry’s investigation into the accident.
Roberto Ferrazza, a transport ministry architect in Genoa, was part of a provincial board overseeing public works. He said he assessed the project proposed by Autostrade to carry out maintenance and repair works on the bridge in February this year. Last week he was appointed to lead the ministry’s investigation into the collapse.
Ferazza told the FT that he would not step down from his power as head of the investigation team:
“I don’t see a conflict of interest,” he said. Whether he continued to head the investigation “is not my decision”, he added. “I was appointed.”
In an attempt to regain control over the narrative, Ferrazza said on Monday that the Autostrade report quoted “at length” from a survey by the Politecnico University in Milan in October last year, which stated that corrosion meant that “parts of the bridge were 10 to 20% down in resistance capacity”. “This was the main reason for the works,” he said.
He said the board gave the proposed maintenance and repair work a “favorable” review but asked for further information about the flaws in the bridge.
The officials made sure their assessment was completed quickly, he said. “We had it for a short time, a few weeks, then we sent it to the ministry in Rome for final approval so the works could get started as soon as possible,” he said. The project was approved by the ministry and a tender for €20m to carry out the work was advertised in May.
And yet, despite the warnings, officials did not stop or limit traffic on the bridge in the six months between the meeting and the collapse. The FT also notes that spokesman for the ministry confirmed it had assessed and approved the Autostrade works, but said it had no further comment to make.
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Meanwhile, new security camera footage released by Genoa’s Guardia di Finanza police force shows how a large chunk of the reinforced concrete viaduct gave away on August 14.
Filmed on security cameras located on a road below the Ponte Morandi bridge, which was built in the 1960s, the footage shows the collapse of the busy stretch of motorway from multiple angles. With cars seen passing on a rain soaked highway, masonry and a white truck suddenly smash to the ground from the disintegrating bridge above.
One eyewitness told RT’s Ruptly of the incredibly loud “roar” of noise that came during the collapse. “The shockwave made me fly about 10 meters away. I went banging against a wall. I do not remember anything else,” he said.