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Resignations sought over collapsed bridge in Italy

The remains of the Morandi motorway bridge stands after it partially collapsed in Genoa, Italy, on Aug. 15, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Federico Bernini.

ROME - After one of the deadliest structural failures in modern Italy, government officials took aim Wednesday at the company operating a bridge that collapsed in Genoa with calls for resignations and possible state control of highways from the Alps to the Mediterranean.

But the disaster that killed at least 39 people and injured more than a dozen also was becoming the first major domestic challenge for Italy's new and inexperienced government. Among the urgent concerns was whether other parts of the country's aging infrastructure could be at risk.

There had been several warning signs in recent years about the bridge's condition, and the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the highway bridge operator, Autostrade per l'Italia, described the structure in a 2011 report as showing "intense decay," in part because of traffic volume.

Two Italian government leaders vowed to impose a major fine on the company, which operates 1,800 miles of highway nationwide. They also said they might take an even bigger step, seeking to hand control of Italy's highways to the state - ending a system of private management that is common in much of Europe.

One government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Italy was not sure whether such a change would be legally or logistically feasible.

"The guilty party of the tragedy in Genoa has a name and surname, and it's Autostrade per l'Italia," Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook before viewing the rubble of the Morandi Bridge by helicopter. "Autostrade should've carried out maintenance and didn't. We need to pull back concessions and inflict fines."

Di Maio added: "If a private company is not up to the task, the state will handle highways."

Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and the government's highest-profile politician, said on Twitter that the deal to manage the highway needs to be "re-debated."

"The state needs to go back to doing what a state does," he wrote. "We're not satisfied about the service being offered, and we act accordingly."

The questions about the company's role in the collapse arose as workers continued to find bodies - and survivors - in the wreckage of steel and concrete.

Experts speculated about what caused the bridge, built in the 1960s, to give way during a major rainstorm.

The bridge collapse, which happened during the height of Italy's summer travel season, caused trucks and cars to plummet more than 150 feet.Autostrade per l'Italia said that maintenance work had been ongoing, but experts said that the risks of reinforced concrete infrastructure can increase after several decades.

"It was not fate but human error," said Francesco Cozzi, the chief prosecutor in Genoa, whose office will investigate.

In statements Wednesday, Autostrade per l'Italia said that regular tests of its infrastructure had been "reassuring," and that all of its maintenance work had been approved by Italy's Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport.

"We employed the companies and institutes that are world leaders in testing and inspecting based on the best international practices," the company said, adding that it spends more than $1.15 billion per year on road security and maintenance. That investment, the company said, helped to decrease the accident fatality rate on its highway network.

Many aspects of the disaster response will fall to Italy's government, which came to power in late May. Its two parties, the League and the Five Star Movement, share a strand of populist DNA but also hold some key differences - including spending priorities.

They have since wrestled internally over one major infrastructure project, a high-speed rail link that would connect Italy and France through the Alps; Five Star politicians have generally opposed the construction.

The two parties have also pledged spending increases elsewhere, calling for tax cuts and new benefits for the poor and unemployed. Those ideas, coupled with euroskeptic sentiments from some Italian leaders, have raised concern in Europe that the country will push back against the bloc's budgetary rules.

Neither party had previously emphasized roads and highways. But Wednesday, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, a Five Star leader, called for a "Marshall Plan" to "secure" the country's infrastructure, much of which was built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Toninelli said the government has started a process to levy fines of $170 million on Autostrade per l'Italia.

Autostrade per l'Italia is majority-owned by Atlantia SpA, publicly traded on the Milan Stock Exchange, where its shares fell 5.4 percent Tuesday. The Italian market was closed Wednesday because of a public holiday. Atlantia SpA's largest single shareholder is a holding company controlled by the Benetton family, known primarily for its fashion company, United Colors of Benetton.

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This article was written by Chico Harlan, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.