Funeral pyres burned across a small town in India’s western Gujarat state on Tuesday, as devastated families cremated their loved ones killed in a suspension bridge collapse over the weekend in which 135 people died, including 47 children.
Local MP Mohan Kundariya lost 12 family members, including five children, who were among a crowd on the suspended footbridge over the Machchhu river in Morbi, 214km west of the state capital Gandhinagar, when it disintegrated on Sunday evening. The crowd had gathered to celebrate the Hindu Chhath festival.
Scores of people who went to the Morbi government hospital looking for relatives and friends after the collapse ended their search in the morgue, from which Hindus moved on to cremate their dead, and a handful of Muslims went to bury theirs.
Morbi municipal officials said about 500 people had thronged the recently refurbished 145-year old colonial-era bridge, when it could only safely accommodate about 125.
CCTV footage showed members of the crowd jostling one another on the 223m long, 1.25m wide bridge, with several youngsters wildly shaking and rocking its flexible sides, before its support cables snapped.
Hundreds of people instantly dropped some 10m into the badly polluted river. They tried desperately to cling on to whatever support they could,
but many were unable to save themselves.
About 200 people were eventually rescued by locals and police and later by military disaster response workers, who also recovered scores of dead bodies from the river.
Tea seller Raju Ramji rescued three children from the muddy, algae-infested waters, only to see them all die soon afterwards as he was unable to get them medical assistance on time.
“The little girl passed away in my lap and the two minor boys soon after,” Mr Ramji told the Times of India. “I have never witnessed such a tragedy.”
The bridge had only opened to the public on October 26th, several weeks ahead of its overhaul schedule deadline on the Gujarati new year but, according to municipal officials, without its contractors having furnished a fitness certificate to the authorities.
Television and social media reports, quoting unnamed officials, claimed the bridge upgrade and maintenance contract had been arbitrarily awarded last year by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) state government to a Morbi firm specialising in the manufacture of CFL bulbs, wall clocks and e-bikes.
The reports further stated that the firm had little expertise in suspension bridge repair and upkeep, and that it had not even replaced many of its old and rusted cables during its retrofit. The BJP has denied all such allegations and said the official inquiry into the accident would determine the truth.
Police have to date arrested nine people on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, but opposition party members claimed these were only low-ranking staff such as ticketing clerks and security guards. No senior official responsible for awarding the bridge’s restoration and upkeep contract or those who had permitted it to reopen without appropriate certification had so far been detained or questioned, they said.
Narendra Modi, who was the state chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years before becoming Indian prime minister in 2014, visited the scene of the disaster and the Morbi government hospital, where several survivors were undergoing treatment.
Television news channels aired clips of Morbi’s dilapidated hospital being painted overnight ahead of Mr Modi’s visit, along with new bedsheets being acquired for patients the prime minister would be visiting.
Hastily installed new water coolers were later revealed to be non-functional, leading to opposition parties accusing the BJP state administration of “event management” to create a photo opportunity for the prime minister.
The BJP is keen on presenting a proactive and robustly sympathetic response to the tragedy, as Gujarat faces imminent legislative assembly elections.