By Ajit Solanki, Aijaz Hussain, Krutika Pathi and Sheikh Saaliq | Associated Press
MORBI, India — Police in western India arrested nine people on Monday as they investigated the collapse of a newly repaired 143-year-old suspension bridge in one of the country’s worst accidents in years, officials said. The collapse Sunday evening in Gujarat state plunged hundreds of people into a river, killing at least 134.
As families mourned the dead, attention turned to why the pedestrian bridge, built during British colonialism in the late 1800s and touted by the state’s tourism website as an “artistic and technological marvel,” collapsed and who might be responsible. The bridge had reopened just four days earlier.
Inspector-General Ashok Yadav said police have formed a special investigative team, and that those arrested include managers of the bridge’s operator, Oreva Group, and its staff.
“We won’t let the guilty get away, we won’t spare anyone,” Yadav said.
Gujarat authorities opened a case against Oreva for suspected culpable homicide, attempted culpable homicide and other violations.
In March, the local Morbi town government awarded a 15-year contract to maintain and manage the bridge to Oreva, a group of companies known mainly for making clocks, mosquito zappers and electric bikes. The same month, Oreva closed the bridge, which spans a wide section of the Machchu river, for repairs.
The bridge has been repaired several times in the past and many of its original parts have been replaced over the years.
It was reopened nearly seven months later, on Oct. 26, the first day of the Gujarati New Year, which coincides with the Hindu festival season, and the attraction drew hundreds of sightseers.
Sandeepsinh Zala, a Morbi official, told the Indian Express newspaper the company reopened the bridge without first obtaining a “fitness certificate.” That could not be independently verified, but officials said they were investigating.
Authorities said the structure collapsed under the weight of hundreds of people. A security video of the disaster showed it shaking violently and people trying to hold on to its cables and metal fencing before the aluminum walkway gave way and crashed into the river.
The bridge split in the middle with its walkway hanging down, its cables snapped.
Police said at least 134 people were confirmed dead and many others were admitted to hospitals in critical condition. Emergency responders and rescuers worked overnight and throughout Monday to search for survivors. State minister Harsh Sanghvi said most of the victims were teenagers, women and older people.
At least 177 survivors were pulled from the river, said Jigar Khunt, an information department official in Gujarat. It was unclear how many people were on the bridge when it collapsed and how many remained missing, but survivors said it was so densely packed that people were unable to quickly escape when its cables began to snap.
“There were just too many people on the bridge. We could barely move,” Sidik Bai, 27, said while recovering from injuries in a hospital in Morbi.
Sidik said he jumped into the water when the bridge began to crack and saw his friend being crushed by its metal walkway. He survived by clinging to the bridge’s cables.
“Everyone was crying for help, but one by one they all began disappearing in the water,” Sidik said.
Local news channels ran pictures of the missing shared by concerned relatives, and family members raced to overcrowded hospitals searching for their loved ones.
Gujarat is the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was visiting the state at the time of the accident. He said he was “deeply saddened by the tragedy” and his office announced compensation for families of the dead and called for speedy rescue efforts.
“Rarely in my life, would I have experienced such pain,” Modi said during a public event in the state on Monday.
Modi was the top elected official of Gujarat for 12 years before becoming India’s prime minister in 2014. A Gujarat state government election is expected in coming months and opposition parties have demanded a thorough investigation of the accident.
The bridge collapse was Asia’s third major disaster involving large crowds in a month.
On Saturday, a Halloween crowd surge killed more than 150 people attending festivities in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea. On Oct. 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators tried to flee.
India’s infrastructure has long been marred by safety problems, and Morbi has suffered other major disasters. In 1979, an upstream dam on the Machchu river burst, sending walls of water into the city and killing hundreds of people in one of India’s biggest dam failures.
In 2001, thousands of people died in an earthquake in Gujarat. Morbi, 85 miles (150 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter in Bhuj, suffered widespread damage. According to a report in the Times of India newspaper, the bridge that collapsed Sunday also was severely damaged.
Hussain, Saaliq and Pathi reported from New Delhi.