How a Festive Stroll Over a Historic Bridge Turned to Carnage in India
They had flocked to the newly reopened suspension bridge on a Sunday evening during India’s most festive season, buying a ticket costing the equivalent of about 20 cents or less to experience the sensation of swaying across the wide Machchhu River in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
The 755-foot-long pedestrian bridge, built during the Victorian era, had long been a tourist attraction, and it was packed with people as the sun set on Sunday and the intense heat eased. 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.
Then, suddenly, the cables snapped, and the bridge spilled its human cargo into the river, like a fishing net releasing its catch. Once in the dark water, some tried to swim to the fallen structure and climb up its tangled netting. Others were swept away.
The regional police chief, Ashok Yadav, said Monday morning that at least 140 people had been killed, but later revised that number to 134. He gave no reason for the new number. Many of the victims were schoolchildren on vacation during the Diwali holiday and migrant workers celebrating a Hindu festival, leaving India to ask once again why its infrastructure keeps failing so calamitously.
Mr. Yadav said that a police case had been filed, and that nine people — including two company managers, two ticket takers, two bridge repairmen and three security guards — had been arrested on charges of attempting to commit culpable homicide and of causing death by negligence.
On Monday, platoons of disaster response workers and members of India’s armed forces combed the fast-moving river in small boats, paddling through the mangroves next to the riverbanks, searching for the missing. In the afternoon, Indian Navy rescue divers were still looking for victims 12 hours after the last body had been recovered.
“The scene is rotating in my head, bodies lying here and there, being taken out, everyone shouting, ‘Save me, save me, save me,’” one survivor, Mahesh Bhai, told a TV reporter from his hospital bed. He was among the dozens of people who had been injured in the collapse but had survived; more than 180 people were rescued in all.
The colonial-era bridge is among a collection of attractions in the quaint town of Morbi, whose ceramic tile industry draws workers from across India. It was a favorite 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.
In March, the bridge’s operations were awarded to Ajanta Manufacturing, a local clock and electronics manufacturer.
Ajanta’s founder, Odhavaji Patel, was known in India as the “father of wall clocks.” The company he ran before his death also makes light bulbs and toothpaste. What is unclear from business records is whether Ajanta had any experience operating bridges before taking over the one in Morbi.
After winning the contract, Ajanta, which also goes by the name Oreva Group, managed seven months of repairs on the bridge, which had been in poor condition. The structure reopened four days before the disaster, timed to coincide with the Gujarati New Year, on Oct. 26.
When Mr. Pithva visited the bridge on Friday, two days before the disaster, he said, there were as many as 500 people crowded onto 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,” Mr. 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.”
On Monday, scrutiny turned to how Ajanta had won the contract, and to whether the company had ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., which has governed Gujarat for more than two decades and which also controls the national government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A municipal official told the Indian news media that the bridge had been opened without a “fitness certificate” or the authorities’ permission. Unaddressed was why the authorities did not shut down the bridge if it had been reopened without approval.
Arjun Modhwadia, a member of the Congress party and a former opposition leader in Gujarat, said that B.J.P. leaders had announced the bridge’s opening as a “Diwali gift to the people of Morbi,” without ensuring its safety.
Yamal Vyas, a spokesman for the B.J.P. in Gujarat, said that the national government had appointed a “high-powered committee” to investigate the disaster. Mr. Modi, who was campaigning in Gujarat, his home state, ahead of fiercely contested state assembly elections, canceled at least some of the rest of the week’s campaign events.
“Congress wants to ply politics in everything,” Mr. Vyas said.
Ajanta blamed the victims. “Too many people in the midsection of the bridge were trying to sway it from one side to the other,” a newspaper, The Indian Express, quoted a company spokesman as saying. It was unclear why the company had allowed so many people on the bridge at once; Ajanta did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The New York Times.
The company’s chairman, Jaysukh Patel, spoke at a news conference Monday.
“This hanging bridge is a historical treasure of Morbi,” Mr. Patel said, adding that Ajanta had hired a subcontractor with experience repairing bridges to meet “technical specifications” and other requirements.
If history holds, it may be unlikely that any companies or municipal officials face serious consequences. Infrastructure failures caused by overcrowding are common in India and rarely result in accountability or change.
Building contracts are often awarded to relatives or associates of political leaders, who can acquire necessary permissions but may not be competent builders. Planning is piecemeal. On-site supervision is weak. Safety measures are haphazard. And life, when it is lost, costs the government very little.
When things go wrong, officials offer cash compensation. On Sunday, within hours of the disaster, Gujarat’s chief minister, Bhupendra Patel, announced payments of about $4,800 for each of the families of the dead and about $600 for the injured.
In India, hundreds of people have been killed over the past decade in infrastructure disasters.
In 2013, after the police failed to control crowding on a bridge in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, one of its railings snapped, resulting in more than 100 deaths.
In 2014, an overpass that was under construction collapsed in Gujarat, killing at least 10 people. A police investigation found that both the design and the construction materials were faulty.
In 2016, part of an unfinished overpass, in the works for over seven years in the eastern city of Kolkata, came crashing down on a busy street, killing more than two dozen people. Mr. Modi described that disaster, in an opposition-controlled state, as an “act of fraud” rather than an “act of God.”
That same year, at least 42 people were killed in the collapse of a British-era bridge along a scenic landscape in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
On Monday, Randeep Surjewala, a Congress party lawmaker, echoed Mr. Modi’s 2016 statement to turn it against him, calling the latest bridge collapse a “man-made tragedy.”