Bridge Collapses, Bodies Hard to Find

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ENTRE-OS-RIOS, Portugal (AP) - As hundreds of grieving residents watched, divers worked cautiously in the powerful current of a rain-swollen river Monday to locate at least 60 bodies from vehicles that plunged into the water when a bridge collapsed.

Crews in motorboats had strung steel cables across the Douro river. Frogmen fastened to the cables dove into the murky, brown water.

They were looking for a two-decker bus that fell off the bridge when a support pillar crumbled after dark Sunday. Witnesses said two cars also fell into the water.

Officials were unsure of the exact death toll. They believed about 60 people were on the bus and as many as 10 in the two cars. They said there would be no survivors. The vehicles fell 165 feet from the bridge.

Seven hours after the search began, the divers had found only one body in the river and halted operations while they waited for a sonar device to arrive from Lisbon, about 180 miles to the south.

Apart from the strong current and poor visibility, the divers also were concerned about becoming snagged in the bridge's twisted metal girders hidden beneath the surface. Heavy rain slowed operations further.

``This situation is very agonizing because we can't find the bodies,'' said Lino Pereira, the deputy mayor of nearby Castelo de Paiva.

Residents, many of them relatives and friends of those believed trapped in the wreckage of the vehicles, lined the two banks. Some wept.

Anabela Pereira, 26, watched the divers from beneath her umbrella.

``This delay is very hard on us,'' she said.

The anguish was made more acute because there was no list of passengers on the bus, leaving some people unsure about whether the victims were their loved ones. Officials toured villages in the rural area asking people if they knew anyone on the bus, which had been on a day trip.

The body that was retrieved was that of a woman aged between 60 and 65, officials said. She had head injuries but the cause of death was given as drowning.

The Douro river, one of Portugal's largest, was swollen by days of heavy rain. The stretch where the vehicles fell was believed to be 50 feet deep.

Dozens of local people jeered Prime Minister Antonio Guterres when he visited the scene, blaming the government, which is responsible for the bridge's maintenance, for the deaths.

Guterres rejected the accusation. ``No one of good faith would think there was any type of personal blame,'' he said.

The local mayor, Paulo Teixeira, claimed he had warned the government about cracks in the structure three years ago. About 1,800 vehicles a day cross the bridge on average.

Infrastructure Minister Jorge Coelho announced Sunday night he was quitting. ``I completely accept the political responsibility for this accident,'' he said.

Manuel Fonseca, a local firefighter, said he was angry about the accident.

``It's a great tragedy that could have been avoided,'' he said. ``The bridge was known to be unsafe.''

The accident occurred about 9 p.m. Sunday when a pillar gave way, sending a 250 foot section of the stone and metal bridge into the water.

Isabel Costa, a local woman, said she was about to cross the 116-year-old bridge in her car when it collapsed.

``All I could hear was screaming,'' she said.