By Ilaria Polleschi
GENOA (Reuters) – Italian rescue workers used jackhammers and cranes on Friday to lift giant slabs of concrete from the Genoa highway bridge collapse, hoping to find survivors buried in the rubble of the disaster that killed at least 38 people.
A fire held up part of the operation in the early morning, sending up clouds of white smoke before being extinguished. A spark from metal-cutting equipment was thought to have caused the blaze that started in a warehouse under the ruined bridge.
But then the more than 300 firefighters who have been working non-stop since Tuesday resumed their task. As many as 20 people are still unaccounted for, Genoa’s chief prosecutor said.
Chances of finding survivors appeared to be slim. Vehicles on the highway that links the port city to the French border plummeted 50 meters (165 feet) to the ground when a 200-metre (660-foot) stretch of the viaduct collapsed on Tuesday.
Firefighters, who are using sniffer dogs as well as heavy machinery, have not yet reached all the cars.
“We are trying to find points where we can penetrate these incredibly heavy slabs. Then the earth-moving equipment moves in to create a passageway where the dogs can enter,” firefighter Stefano Zanut said at the scene.
Rescuers are hoping that the large chunks of debris may have created a “triangle of survival” when they fell, where someone could still be alive, he said.
Some 600 people have had to leave their apartments below the remaining spans of the bridge for fear of further collapse. The homes will be demolished as officials have deemed it would be too dangerous to leave them there.
The government has said alternative housing will be found, although it may take months to re-house everyone.
A state funeral for many of the victims will be held on Saturday at Genoa’s Exhibition and Trade Centre, led by the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, and attended by President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
But some families plan to boycott the event and hold their own private services, as a sign of protest against what they say was the negligence that caused the bridge to collapse.
An engineering study commissioned by toll-highway operator Autostrade per l’Italia last year warned about the state of the bridge’s concrete-encased cable stays, Italian newspapers reported.
Autostrade has said it monitored the bridge on a quarterly basis, as required by law, and carried out additional checks by hiring external experts. It had no immediate comment on Friday’s news reports.
The government has declared Saturday a national day of mourning. The state funeral will be televised live and broadcaster RAI will not air any advertising, as a sign of respect for the victims.
Shares in the parent company of Autostrade plunged more than 30 percent in the days after the collapse, but were recovering slightly on Friday as investors said government threats to revoke its concessions might be political rhetoric rather than a likely outcome.
The Transport Ministry has given Autostrade 15 days to show it had met all its contractual obligations, and wants the company to rebuild the bridge at its own expense.
(Writing by Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes in Milan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)