At least 81 people were killed in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Sunday when a footbridge packed with sightseers enjoying holiday festivities collapsed and plunged them into the river below.
Authorities said more than 400 people were on or around the suspension bridge over the Machhu River in the town of Morbi at the time of the collapse on Sunday evening. The state’s Home Minister Harsh Sanghavi said more than 150 people were on the bridge itself.
TV footage showed dozens of people clinging onto the cables and twisted remains of the collapsed bridge as emergency teams struggled to rescue them. Some clambered up them to try to make their way to the river banks, while others swam to safety.
Atul Prajapati, a medical officer at the state hospital near the disaster site, said: “We have found 81 bodies and the final rites process has begun.”
Dozens of people were also injured, officials said.
Bridge an attraction for tourists
The 230-metre historic bridge is a tourist attraction that draws many sight-seers during the festive season, when Diwali and Chhath Puja are celebrated. Officials said the victims are mostly local people who were visiting the bridge for recreational purposes.
The bridge was built during British rule in the 19th century. It had been closed for renovation for six months and was reopened for the public last week.
Opposition party leaders alleged that the government had not conducted a thorough technical assessment and load bearing capacity before it was opened to the public.
Prateek Vasava, who swam to the river bank after falling from the bridge, told local news channel 24 Hours that he witnessed several children fall into the river.
“I wanted to pull some of them along with me but they had drowned or got swept away,” he said.
The bridge collapsed in just a few seconds, he said.
Another witness told Reuters he believed the bridge was overloaded with people, causing the structure to fail.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in his home state Gujarat for a three-day visit, said he had directed the state chief minister to mobilize teams urgently for the rescue operation.
Fifty navy and 30 air force personnel were called in to help, along with a national disaster management team to trace missing people, the government said in a statement. The state government has formed a five-member special investigation team to conduct an investigation into the disaster.
The incident comes ahead of elections in Gujarat, which are expected to be held by the year-end with the current term of the Modi’s ruling party’s term ending in February, 2023.