A motorway bridge on a main highway linking Italy with France has collapsed during torrential rainfall near the port city of Genoa.
While 26 remained the official death toll on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said later that the number would rise.
An 80-metre section of the Morandi Bridge, including one set of the supports that tower above it, crashed down in the rain onto the roof of a factory and other buildings, crushing at least one truck and plunging huge slabs of concrete into the river below. Vehicles were sent plunging nearly 150ft into the rubble.
One eyewitness was quoted by Ansa as having seen “lightning strike the bridge”. Pietro M all’Asa added: “And we saw the bridge going down.”
Motorist Alessandro Megna told RAI state radio he had been in a traffic jam below the bridge and seen the collapse. “Suddenly the bridge came down with everything it was carrying. It was really an apocalyptic scene, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said.
At least two survivors are said to have been saved from the rubble and more than 280 rescue workers and sniffer dog units are at the scene. Italy’s Transport Minister, Danilo Toninelli, said in a tweet that he was “following with great apprehension”.
Giovanni Toti, the governor of the northwestern Liguria region around Genoa, had said earlier on a televised press conference that the official death toll of 22 victims would “certainly rise significantly.” Toti also said maintenance work carried out on the bridge had proved insufficient.
British Prime Minister Theresa May paid tribute to those who had lost their lives in a tweet on Tuesday evening.
She said: “My thoughts are with the people of Italy following the terrible collapse in Genoa of the Morandi Bridge. The UK stands alongside our Italian friends and allies following this tragic event.”
Restructuring work on the kilometre-long bridge, which was built in the 1960s, was carried out in 2016 and Italy’s Autostrade, a motorway operator, said it had been carrying out further maintenance work to strengthen the road foundations on the flyover bridge on Tuesday.
“The works and state of the viaduct were under constant monitoring and supervision,” the company said in a statement. “The causes of the collapse will be thoroughly investigated as soon it is be safe to access the site.”
Toninelli told Italian state television the disaster showed the dilapidated state of Italy’s infrastructure and a lack of maintenance, adding that “those responsible will have to pay”.
A witness told Sky Italia television he saw “eight or nine” vehicles on the bridge when it collapsed in what he said was an “apocalyptic scene”. It was later confirmed at least 38 vehicles had been involved. Train services in the Genoa region have been halted.
Firefighters told the Associated Press there are concerns about gas lines exploding in the area from the collapse.
Video circulating on Italian media captured the sound of a man screaming: “Oh god, oh, god”. Other images showed a green truck that had stopped on the bridge just metres short of the gaping hole in the bridge.
Italy’s anti-establishment government, which took office in June, has pledged to increase public investments and lobby the European Commission to have the extra spending excluded from EU deficit calculations.
“The tragic facts in Genoa remind us of the public investments that we so badly need,” said Claudio Borghi, economics spokesman of the right-wing League party, which governs with the 5-Star Movement.
The office of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was heading to Genoa in the evening and would remain there on Wednesday. Defence minister Elisabetta Trenta said the army was ready to offer manpower and vehicles to help with the rescue operations.
Shares in Atlantia, the toll road operator which runs the motorway, were suspended after falling by 6.3 per cent.
The collapse of the bridge comes eight days after another major accident on an Italian highway, one near the northern city of Bologna.
In that case, a tanker truck carrying a highly flammable gas exploded after rear-ending a stopped truck on the road and getting hit from behind itself. The accident killed one person, injured dozens and blew apart a section of a raised eight-lane highway.