Authorities in Genoa on Wednesday handed down warrants for the arrest of several top managers at the company tasked with overseeing a bridge that collapsed in the city in 2018 killing 43 people, the clearest attempt yet to hold the company’s leadership accountable for the tragedy.
Prosecutors issued warrants for the former chief executive officer and other officials at the motorway operator, Autostrade per l’Italia, which managed the Morandi Bridge, in a probe into highway neglect.
Giovanni Castellucci, the former C.E.O. of Atlantia, of which Autostrade per l’Italia is a subsidiary, Michele Donferri Mitelli, the former general director of maintenance for the company, and Paolo Berti, its chief operations and maintenance officer, were all placed under house arrest.
The decision was welcomed by the families of the victims, who have waited for years for someone to be held accountable.
“It is an extremely important day,” Egle Possetti, the head of a committee that represents the families of the Morandi’s victims, echoed in a statement. “For us relatives, awaiting some light for now 27 months, our hearts are starting to warm up again.”
A broader investigation into why the bridge — which spanned more than a half a mile over a riverbed, residential buildings and warehouses, connecting western and eastern Genoa — abruptly collapsed one foggy morning in the summer of 2018 is still ongoing.
The warrants come on the heels of another investigation that prosecutors say demonstrates that the company was not taking proper care of the bridge. Autostrade’s failure to remove defective noise barriers on the roadway and along some 18 miles of highway around Genoa. Portions of the barriers bent under the wind, pieces fell off and put drivers at risk.
While the investigation into the noise barriers is not intended to determine the cause of the 2018 collapse, the prosecutors say the warped barriers may have impacted the integrity of the bridge.
Italy’s Finance Police said that the company had been aware of potentially dangerous flaws in the noise barriers since 2017, but failed to substitute them to save money, while making billions of euros in profit.
Residents had complained of persistent noise from the bridge. On at least two occasions in recent years, when the barriers broke under strong winds, the operator only partially fixed them.
In a wiretap, Autostrade’s officials likened the adhesive material that was used to anchor the barriers to the viaduct to a type of glue used by schoolchildren.
Investigators found that Autostrade and its managers’ handling of the defective barriers constituted “grave criminal conduct, linked to entrepreneurial policies aimed at maximizing profits deriving from the contract with the state, through the reduction and the delay of the expenses needed to maintain the motorways, at the expense of public safety,” the judge who ordered the arrest warrants wrote in a court document obtained by The New York Times.
In a phone call a year after the collapse, Mr. Donferri Mitelli, who was responsible for maintenance on the roadways the company managed, asked a colleague to remove documents related to the bridge from his office under the cover of darkness and meet him in a neighborhood in southern Rome, according to a court document.
Autostrade said in a statement on Wednesday that the sound barriers were fixed late last year on more than 60 kilometers, or around 37 miles, of Italian motorways. The company, said that it first became aware of the issue in December 2019, after the bridge collapsed.
Most of Autostrade’s top management left the company or was fired last year, in what business watchers deemed a change of course for the Benetton family, the main shareholders in Atlantia, Autostrade’s parent company. Since the bridge collapse, the company has been negotiating a deal with the Italian government to keep control of the country’s highways.
A criminal trial is expected to begin in early 2021 over the company’s role in the bridge collapse. But for the last two years, prosecutors have used a series of complex, technical hearings to ascertain the cause of the collapse.
About 72 people including officials from Autostrade and from its maintenance company, SPEA, as well as from Italy’s Transport Ministry, have been interviewed at the hearings.
Most of the relatives of those killed in the collapse have already been financially compensated by Autostrade and won’t participate in the trial, but some few families rejected the compensation and are still seeking justice in court.
“We believe Autostrade did not do the maintenance or did it poorly on the Morandi Bridge,” said Antonio Cirillo, a lawyer for the family of Giovanni Battiloro, 29, who died along with two friends when his car plunged from the viaduct. “What happened to Giovanni and his family should not happen in a civilized country.”