Grieving relatives ask Italian road chiefs to leave bridge memorial ceremony

Reuters , Wednesday 14 Aug 2019

People that did not take part in the ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Morandi bridge collapse, stage their own commemoration on the bridge on the Polcevera river in Genoa, Italy, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. (AP)

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 chairman 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 which has indirectly fed government infighting.

The ruling 5-Star Movement has blamed Atlantia for the disaster, accusing the group of neglecting maintenance on the ageing 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.

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.

Approached by Conte's officials, the Atlantia delegation, including Chief Executive Giovanni Castellucci and Chairman 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".

The pair 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-km (1,100-yard) motorway viaduct collapsed, sending vehicles plummeting about 50 metres 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.


Hostilities suspended


The leaders suspended hostilities for the anniversary commemoration. As well as Conte and Salvini, head of state Sergio Mattarella and 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio paid their 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 5-Star party has accused Salvini's right-wing League party of trying to protect the Benetton family and of resisting 5-Star attempts to revoke Atlantia's concession. Salvini denies this.

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 which 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 mums, the dads, the children are always right. Their feelings are not debatable."

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