Why Did Italy’s Genoa Bridge Collapse?

Thousands more structures are in dire need of repair or replacement, experts warn
August 15, 2018 Updated: August 16, 2018

Italian prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the Aug. 14 Genoa bridge collapse, which left at least 38 people dead.

Engineering experts are warning that “tens of thousands” of structures in Italy are at risk after the disaster, which was described by one witness as apocalyptic.

While experts say it’s too early to say what caused the bridge to disintegrate, they pointed to its troubled design and maintenance history.

Meanwhile, officials have rushed to blame the bridge’s private operator, demanding resignations, and are moving to strip its toll concession.

‘The Scene Is Apocalyptic’

Vehicles plummeted onto a riverbed, a railway, and two warehouses when a 650-foot portion of the Morandi motorway bridge in northern Italy broke apart.

Footage of the tragedy, with the anguished cries of an onlooker—“Oh God! Oh God!”—showed a flash of light as the bridge toppled out of view.

“The scene is apocalyptic, like a bomb had hit the bridge,” Matteo Pucciarelli, a journalist for the Italian daily La Repubblica, told The Guardian. “There are about 200 rescuers working continuously. People are in shock.”

Eye-witness Ivan, 37, evacuated from a nearby building, described the collapse as unbelievable.

“To see a pylon come down like papier-mâché is an incredible thing,” he said. “It’s been a lifetime that we’ve known there were problems. It is in continual maintenance.”

Rescuers worked through the night, scouring the tons of concrete and steel wreckage for survivors.

Rescuers scour rubble of the collapsed bridge for survivors
Italian rescuers climb onto the rubble of the collapsed Morandi motorway bridge searching for victims and survivors in the northern port city of Genoa on Aug. 14, 2018. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

“We’re not giving up hope, we’ve already saved a dozen people from under the rubble,” a fire official, Emanuele Giffi, told AFP. “We’re going to work round the clock until the last victim is secured.”

So far, four people have been pulled alive from cars found in the mangled ruins.

An aerial view of the remnants of the collapsed Morandi bridge
The collapsed Morandi Bridge is seen in the Italian port city of Genoa, Italy. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

The Blame Game

Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, said in a Facebook post on Aug. 15, “Those responsible for the tragedy in Genoa have a name and a surname, and they’re called Autostrade per l’Italia.”

The prime minister of Italy visits the disaster zone
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (2ndR) visits the site where a section of the Morandi motorway bridge collapsed in Genoa on Aug. 14, 2018. (Andrea Leoni/AFP/Getty Images)

Interior minister Matteo Salvini said bridge operator Autostrade had earned “billions” from tolls but “did not spend the money they were supposed to,” and its concession should be revoked.

“Imposing the highest penalties possible and making sure that those responsible for the dead and the injured pay up for any damages and crimes is the very least,” Salvini said.

Danilo Toninelli, the transport minister, said the collapse was “unacceptable” and that if negligence was a factor “whoever made a mistake must pay.”

Stefano Marigliani, Autostrade’s area director for Genoa, said the collapse was “unexpected and unpredictable.”

“Queues of cars and the volume of traffic cause intense decay of the Morandi viaduct structure on a daily basis,” Marigliani said.

“The bridge was constantly monitored and supervised well beyond what the law required. There was no reason to consider the bridge dangerous.”

The transport minister said that while the maintenance work was up to date, Autostrade was about to launch a 20 million euro ($23 million) bidding process for major safety improvements to the bridge.

The tender would have covered strengthening the bridge’s pier cables, including those of pier nine, the one that collapsed on Aug. 14.

‘A Tragedy Waiting to Happen’

The 51-year-old Genoa bridge, designed by the renowned Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, was fraught with “structural doubts.”

A close up image of a section of the collapsed Morandi bridge
A picture shows the Morandi motorway bridge after it collapsed in Genoa on August 14, 2018. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

That is how the specialist engineering website Ingegneri.info referred to the bridge, calling it “a tragedy waiting to happen.”

In its design, Morandi used his own patented pre-stressed reinforced concrete technology, which later proved problematic.

Antonio Brencich, a professor of reinforced concrete construction at the University of Genoa, told Radio Capitale that Morandi’s technology “was affected by extremely serious corrosion problems” and over time was shown “to be a failure.”

Guido De Roeck, professor emeritus at KU Leuven, a university in Belgium, told VRT news that a vulnerable point of Morandi’s design was the “limited number of cables—not steel cables, but pretensioned concrete cables, which are subject to corrosion.”

But while rusting metal parts are by definition the weakest link in a construction like Morandi’s, it is very unlikely that corrosion bad enough to cause a collapse would have gone unnoticed, according to Agathoklis Giaralis, deputy director of the University of London’s Civil Engineering Structures Research Centre, who spoke to the Daily Mail.

“I would say that most probably something went wrong with the foundation or supporting ground rather than with the pier, the deck, or the cables,” he said.

Ian Firth, former president of The Institution of Structural Engineers, told the Daily Mail that “it is too early to say what caused the tragic collapse, but as this reinforced and prestressed concrete bridge has been there for 50 years it is possible that corrosion of tendons or reinforcement may be a contributory factor.”

‘Tens of Thousands Need To Be Replaced’

In the wake of the disaster, the integrity of other structures across Italy is now in question.

Transport minister Danilo Toninelli said that many structures suffer from insufficient safety checks.

“There has not been sufficient maintenance and checks, and safety work for many bridges and viaducts in Italy constructed—almost all—during the 1960s,” he said.

An abandoned truck sits atop a section of the collapsed bridge
An abandoned vehicle sits atop a section of the collapsed Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, Aug. 15, 2018. (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said “all infrastructure” across the country needed to be double-checked. “We must not allow another tragedy like this to happen again,” he added.

Diego Zoppi, former president of the Genoa branch of the order of architects, told reporters on Aug. 14: “The Italy built in the 1950s and 1960s is in urgent need of renovation. The risk of collapses is underestimated, the works built at that time are coming to an age when they are at risk.”

Italian civil engineering association CNR reportedly said structures as old as the collapsed Morandi bridge had exceeded their lifespan.

Tens of thousands of bridges and viaducts built in the 1950s and 1960s should be repaired or replaced.

CNR said updating and reinforcing the bridges would in many cases be more expensive than demolishing them and building new structures from scratch, the Telegraph reported.