Mourners at the site of the bridge collapse asked motorway bosses to leave the ceremony [Massimo Pinca/Reuters]
Grieving relatives asked bosses of Italy‘s biggest motorway operator to leave a ceremony held on Wednesday to remember victims a year after the bridge collapse that killed 43 people in the port city of Genoa.
The chief executive and chairman of infrastructure group Atlantia, which operated the Morandi bridge that collapsed on August 14 last year, 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.
On Wednesday, local prosecutor Francesco Cozzi said parts of the bridge had lacked proper maintenance for 25 years.
“The investigation will tell whether [the lack of maintenance] was instrumental in causing the collapse,” Cozzi told reporters at a news conference following the memorial.
Shares in Atlantia fell four percent after the prosecutor’s comment.
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 News Agency.
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”.
Dozens of company officials are 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 1.2km 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.
Political crisis put on hold
The nation’s political 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 Morandi 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 in a bid to force a snap election.
The 5-Star party has accused Salvini’s League party of trying to protect the Benetton family and of obstructing 5-Star’s attempts to revoke Atlantia’s concession. Salvini has denied 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.”
Salvini suffers setback
Riding a wave of anti-migrant popularity following his crackdown on humanitarian rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean, Salvini collapsed the government in which he served as interior minister last week, saying League and 5-star had irreconcilable differences and could no longer continue in coalition.
But his plan to force early elections, possibly as soon as October – more than three years ahead of schedule – encountered obstacles this week, as legislators refused to hold an immediate vote of no confidence in Conte’s government.
Members of the Italian Senate were called back from their holidays to debate a timetable for the no-confidence vote on Tuesday, but 5-star senators teamed up with the opposition Democrats to delay any such motion being put to the parliament until after it is addressed by Conte next week.