- Geeta Pandey
- BBC correspondent in Morby
Questions are still being asked after the collapse of a popular footbridge in the western Indian state of Gujarat, sending a large number of tourists into the river.
The tragic accident in the small town of Morby on Sunday (October 30) night was one of India’s worst tragedies in years, killing 135 people, most of them women, children and the elderly.
At the time of the accident, the 135-year-old suspension bridge had been reopened just five days after repairs – what went wrong?
The BBC interviewed some survivors, first responders, local journalists and officials to try to piece together the full picture of the avoidable tragedy.
Local residents and journalists have blamed the company that operates the suspension bridge for the incident – and police and local authorities have also been blamed.
minutes before the disaster
Mahesh Chavda and two of his friends bought tickets and stepped onto the rickety suspension bridge in Morby just after 18:30 on Sunday evening.
Described on the government’s tourism website as a “technological marvel” and popular with tourists – it was one of Mahesh’s favourite places to visit as a child.
The 230-meter (754-foot) suspension bridge spans the Machchu river and connects Darbargarh Palace and Lakhdhirji Engineering College. The exact date of its construction varies, but locals say it was built in the 1880s by the local maharaja, Waghji Thakore.
“I used to come with my parents, and for the last few years, I’ve been there every Sunday with my friends,” Mahesh said.
He said he was “excited” after hearing about the suspension bridge reopening last week, and then the 18-year-old and his friends decided to continue their Sunday night routine.
Mahesh, sitting on a hospital bed with a plastic collar around his neck, told me that as they approached the suspension bridge, they could see too many people on the bridge.
“So we wanted to wait, but the ticket inspector said we had to go forward. The moment we stepped on, the bridge collapsed,” he said.
The section of the bridge where Mahesh and his friends were standing overturned and they were thrown into the river 15 metres below.
The three teenagers were injured but survived.
But more than a hundred other people did not. The disaster devastated many families, many of whom had multiple members killed during this evening trip across the bridge.
Allegations about the condition of the bridge
Many are now asking how a tragedy of this scale could have happened, and why the accident was not avoided?
The bridge was reopened to the public last Wednesday to coincide with the Gujarati New Year.
A day earlier, Jaysukh Bhai Patel, owner of the Oreva group, which had been contracted to maintain and operate the bridge since 2008, told a news conference that the restoration work cost 20 million rupees ($242,000; £211,200).
“The bridge will be fine for the next eight to 10 years. If it is used responsibly, the bridge will not need repairs for the next 15 years,” he was quoted as saying by the Times of India.
He praised the restoration work and mechanical work, as well as the contractors hired by the company, the report said.
After Sunday’s accident, police have arrested nine people linked to Orewa — including two managers and two ticket inspectors who were salaried at the business, as well as two contractors and three hired by the company. name security.
They were investigated for manslaughter, not murder.
The BBC tried to contact Orewa for a response to the allegations.
Earlier last week, a company spokesperson told the Indian Express that there were too many people in the middle of the bridge and some were deliberately shaking the bridge.
The Orewa Group has also been accused of other missteps, including failing to obtain permission from the authorities to operate the suspension bridge.
Local administrator Sandipsinh Zala told reporters on Monday that Orewa Group had not been issued a safety certificate before reopening the drawbridge.
But many questioned why a company known for making clocks would be allowed to repair a bridge. The company also manufactures lighting products, electric bicycles and home appliances.
Sara did not answer our calls or return our messages, but an assistant in his office told me that the Orewa Group had originally won a contract to lease the suspension bridge from the regional administration in 2008.
“Sarah just renewed the contract in March,” the assistant said.
The BBC has seen a copy of the agreement, which is valid for 15 years – until March 2037.
The agreement also states that the company assumes responsibility for maintenance and security, while also retaining ticket proceeds.
According to the document, the company was allowed to set the fares at Rs 15 for adults and Rs 12 for children, but would charge an additional Rs 2 per ticket.
Authorities have promised a full investigation, and a special investigation team has been set up to investigate the cause of the disaster.
Who is responsible for too many people on the bridge?
All accounts of events in Morby suggest that the number of people allowed on the bridge at the same time could cause the drawbridge to collapse.
Most people say that there can only be a maximum of 100-150 people on the bridge at one time, but many witnesses estimate that there were more than 500 people on the bridge at the time.
Longtime Morby veteran journalist Pravin Vyas said he lived near the drawbridge but had never seen so many people on it.
“Because it’s Sunday and it’s the last day of the week-long Diwali festival in India, there’s a sudden influx of locals and tourists. A lot of people are also happy to come out to celebrate after two years of Covid-19 lockdown.”
“It’s the management’s responsibility to know how many people can be allowed on the bridge at the same time to ensure safety. But it’s good for them to have more people on the bridge because it’s a ticket,” he said.
Vias said the town administration and police were not to blame either.
“After it reopened, thousands of people came to the bridge every day, so the authorities couldn’t say they didn’t know because the Orewa group didn’t ask them for permission.”
Critics wonder how a place that attracts thousands of locals and tourists every day has no safety measures in place to deal with emergencies?
They questioned how there were no policemen, drivers and boats nearby.
Regional administrations insist that keeping tourists safe is the responsibility of the operating business.
Another district judge, NK Muchhar, told me that they were proud of their swift response to this crisis, and that they launched a massive operation that saved many lives.
“We found divers, swimmers, ropes, boats and firefighters within 10 minutes,” he said.
But many pointed out that the death toll would have been much higher had it not been for the first responders, including locals and workers building a new temple on the nearby riverbank.
Niranjan Das, who had just finished a day’s work at the temple site, sat on the edge of the bridge with his colleagues and watched the night fall in the town.
“We saw people clinging to the collapsed part of the bridge,” he said.
Together with seven colleagues, he used construction site ropes to bring himself closer to the water.
“We rescued eight people and pulled out dozens of bodies.”
He pointed to his hands and the scars on the feet of a colleague who was involved in the rescue.
Parbat Govind, 61, who moved to Morby two years ago to work as a foreman at the temple, was there at the time and witnessed the disaster.
“Those wounds will heal,” he said, “but we’ll never forget what we saw that day, we’ll never forget the screams.”