Italian rescuers have searched through the night for any survivors from the motorway bridge collapse in Genoa that has now been confirmed to have killed 35 people.
“The latest official number is 35 but we can’t rule out it could rise further,” a Genoa police spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
More than a dozen people have been injured, most of them seriously.
One fire official, Emanuele Giffi, told AFP: “We’re not giving up hope, we’ve already saved a dozen people from under the rubble.
“We’re going to work round the clock until the last victim is secured.”
In what witnesses described as an “apocalypse”, an 80-metre section of the Morandi bridge on the A10 motorway came down in an industrial area of the port city during a sudden and violent storm at about 11.30am on Tuesday. About 30 vehicles, including cars and trucks, were on the affected section when it fell 100 metres, mostly on to rail tracks, the fire service said.
Investigators are now looking at what could have caused such a catastrophic collapse, creating a scene rescuers compared to the aftermath of an earthquake. Sniffer dogs searched through the rubble, and heavy equipment was moved in to lift pieces of the bridge. Heavy rain also made conditions more challenging.
As cars and trucks tumbled off the bridge, truck driver Afifi Idriss just managed to come to a halt in time. “I saw the green lorry in front of me stop and then reverse so I stopped too, locked the truck and ran,” he told AFP.
The green truck was still on the bridge in the late evening, stopped just short of the now yawning gap.
Aerial footage showed that the falling structure narrowly missed houses and other buildings as it collapsed over a river.
The disaster occurred on a major artery to the Italian Riviera and to France’s southern coast. Traffic would have been heavier than usual as many Italians were travelling to beaches or mountains on the eve of a public holiday, Ferragosto.
“The scene is apocalyptic, like a bomb had hit the bridge,” Matteo Pucciarelli, a journalist for La Repubblica who lives in Genoa, told the Guardian. “There are about 200 rescuers working continuously. People are in shock, it’s a very important arterial road that connects Lombardy and Piedmont with Liguria.”
Alberto Lercari, a bus driver, earlier told Corriere della Sera: “I saw people running towards me, barefoot and terrified. I heard a roar. People ran away coming towards me. It was horrible.”
Davide Ricci, who had been travelling south, told La Stampa: “The debris landed about 20 metres from my car. First the central pillar crumbled and then everything else came down.”
Matteo Pierami drove across the bridge with his wife and child, aged two months, almost an hour before it collapsed. The family had been making their way from Lucca, in Tuscany, to the Ligurian town of Imperia. A couple of friends and their baby had been travelling in another car.
“I’ve had some time to calm down and am now trying to understand what happened, but my wife and our friends are very shocked,” Pierami said.
“We didn’t hear or see anything, but after passing the bridge stopped at an Autogrill [roadside restaurant], and started to receive calls from family.”
Pierami, an engineer, had driven over the bridge many times before. “There was lots of traffic; there is always a lot of traffic there.”
The Italian transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, immediately blamed the collapse on poor infrastructure maintenance and pledged that those responsible “would pay”. The minister, from the Five Star Movement, was rebuked by the opposition for using “political propaganda” so soon after the tragedy.
Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, arrived in Genoa on Tuesday night and was expected to be joined later by his deputy, Luigi Di Maio.
Conte said: “It’s too early to talk about the causes and hypothesis, but one thing is certain, a tragedy of this kind cannot be repeated.”
The president, Sergio Mattarella, expressed his condolences in a statement, while stressing that Italians should be guaranteed the right “to modern and efficient infrastructure that accompanies everyday life”.
“Now is the time for a common commitment towards dealing with the emergency, assisting the injured and supporting those hit by the pain,” he added. “Then a serious investigation into the cause of what happened must follow. No authority can evade an exercise of full responsibility.”
The Morandi bridge, which was inaugurated in 1967, is 90-metres high and just over 1km long. Restructuring work on the bridge was carried out in 2016. The highway operator said work to strengthen the road foundations of the bridge was being carried out at the time of the collapse, and the bridge was constantly monitored.
Andrea Montefusco, an engineering expert at Luiss University in Rome, said: “It’s difficult to make any serious hypothesis right now. Some people are saying maybe lightning could have struck a cable on the bridge, but at this moment it’s too early to say anything about the cause.”
Montefusco, who grew up in Genoa, added: “It [the bridge] was a sort of jewel in Italian engineering, because at that time it was built with new engineering techniques. I used to enjoy passing over the bridge as a child, it was a novelty.”
About 12 bridges and overpasses have collapsed in Italy since 2004, killing seven people between them. In early 2015 a €13m viaduct in Palermo collapsed within days of opening. Poor structural maintenance was identified as the cause in most of the cases.