World

Italian bridge company execs asked to leave anniversary memorial for bridge collapse victims

Grieving relatives asked bosses of Italy's biggest motorway operator to leave a ceremony held on Wednesday to remember victims of the bridge collapse in the port city of Genoa that killed 43 people.

CEO, chair and others from Atlantia, which oversees the Morandi bridge in Genoa, accede to the request

Relatives of the victims comfort each other in Genoa as they gather for an official ceremony on the first anniversary of the Morandi highway bridge collapse. (Luca Zennaro/EPA-EFE)

Grieving relatives asked bosses of Italy's biggest motorway operator to leave a ceremony held on Wednesday to remember victims of the bridge collapse in the port city of Genoa that killed 43 people.

The chief executive and chair of infrastructure group Atlantia — which operated the bridge that collapsed on Aug. 14 last year sending cars and trucks plummeting to the ground — and other company officials left moments before the ceremony began.

Despite a political crisis in Rome, leaders came together to honour the victims of a disaster that has indirectly fed government infighting.

The Five-Star Movement, part of Italy's governing coalition, has blamed Atlantia for the disaster, accusing the group of neglecting maintenance on the aging viaduct and calling for its national toll-road concession to be revoked.

Atlantia, controlled by the Benetton family famous for its retail clothing chain, denies the accusations. It says regular, state-supervised inspections had indicated the viaduct was safe, but the company has struggled to repair its reputation.

The company published a full-page open letter in several national and local newspapers on Wednesday, reiterating its condolences to the victims and their families.

In cases like this, relatives are always right. The moms, the dads, the children are always right. Their feelings are not debatable.- Italian deputy PM Matteo Salvini

But as the head of state, prime minister and other political leaders took their front-row seats for the ceremony, some relatives told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte they would leave if the Atlantia officials remained, mourner Giuseppe Matti told Reuters.

Matti was attending the ceremony, at a damaged warehouse at the disaster site, to commemorate the death of his son Luigi.

Citizens are shown on an overpass in Genoa attending the official ceremony for the 43 victims of the Aug. 14, 2018, tragedy. (Luca Zennaro/EPA-EFE)

Approached by Conte's officials, the Atlantia delegation, including chief executive Giovanni Castellucci and chair Fabio Cerchiai, left the ceremony to follow it remotely, the company said in a statement.

Atlantia said its executives had left to avoid the ceremony being "disturbed with any kind of controversy."

Criminal probe ongoing

Some parts of the reinforced concrete viaduct had lacked proper maintenance for 25 years before it crumbled, according to a technical report commissioned by investigators, Genoa's top prosecutor Francesco Cozzi said after the ceremony.

Cozzi said he expected to complete his investigation into the disaster by the first half of next year.

"The investigation will tell whether [the lack of maintenance] was instrumental in causing the collapse," he told a news conference.

Atlantia CEO Giovanni Castellucci is shown at the memorial ceremony in northern Italy before leaving due to the request of some relatives. (Luca Zennaro/EPA-EFE)

Atlantia declined to comment further after Cozzi's comments. Its shares fell after his comments, extending earlier losses to slide as much as four per cent lower on the day.

Castellucci and Cerchiai are among dozens of company officials under investigation for suspected manslaughter over the collapse. They deny any wrongdoing.

The ceremony began with the names of the 43 victims read aloud, moving some relatives to tears as Conte and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stood among sombre-faced dignitaries.

Conte addressed the hushed crowd at the site where a large section of the 1.2-kilometre motorway viaduct collapsed, sending vehicles plummeting about 50 meters to the ground.

"We will never stop calling for justice for the victims," he said. "Genoa, at its darkest hour, has managed to find light and brought back hope for an entire country."

Pope Francis sent a message to the people of Genoa, saying their struggle to resign themselves to "a disaster that could have been avoided" was understandable.

Atlantia could be affected by coalition's collapse

Italy's two most prominent leaders, Salvini and Five-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, suspended hostilities for the anniversary commemoration. Official head of state Sergio Mattarella, who serves mostly in a ceremonial role, also paid his respects. 

The collapse of the bridge, built in the 1960s with reinforced concrete, has provided one of several points of conflict in the coalition that Salvini tore apart last week, paving the way for a possible snap election as soon as October.

The Five-Star party has accused Salvini's right-wing League party of trying to protect the Benetton family and of resisting their attempts to revoke Atlantia's concession. Salvini denies this.

Italian Deputy Premier and Labour Minister Luigi Di Maio, left, and Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, right, are shown in profile at the ceremony. The coalition government formed by the two men has shown signs of imploding over internal differences in recent days. (Luca Zennaro/EPA-EFE)

His fellow deputy prime minister, Di Maio, said after the ceremony the government should revoke motorway concessions when contracts were not respected.

The infrastructure group was one of few companies whose stock was boosted by the prospect of a government breakdown, which investors bet may protect it from losing the motorway business that brings in a third of its core profit.

Asked after the ceremony if it was wrong to ask the Atlantia executives to leave, Salvini said: "In cases like this, relatives are always right. The moms, the dads, the children are always right. Their feelings are not debatable."

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