On August 14, 2018, in the pouring rain, the Morandi motorway bridge, an essential axis for local journeys and traffic between Italy and France, collapsed, throwing dozens of vehicles and their passengers into the void.

This tragedy cast a harsh light on the poor state of transport infrastructure in Italy and the troubled role of the company Autostrade per l’Italia (Aspi), accused of not having maintained the work of art to save money on the back of security.

“The Morandi Bridge was a ticking time bomb. You could hear the ticking, but you didn’t know when it was going to explode,” Walter Cotugno, one of the prosecutors, said in February.

For him, there is no doubt that the leaders of Autostrade and the engineering company Spea, in charge of maintenance, “were aware of the risk of collapse”, but that they were reluctant to finance works in order to “preserve the dividends” of the shareholders.

The finding of the magistrates’ investigation is damning: “Between the inauguration (of the bridge) in 1967 and the collapse – therefore 51 years later -, minimal maintenance interventions were not carried out to strengthen the stays of pillar number 9”, which collapsed on the day of the tragedy.

Most of the defendants summoned by the Genoa court are executives and technicians from the two companies, including the general manager of Autostrade at the time Giovanni Castellucci, who left with compensation of 13 million euros, as well as the former boss of Spea Antonino Galata and civil servants from the Ministry of Infrastructure.

– Cumbersome witness –

They are prosecuted in particular for manslaughter, attack on transport security and forgery in public writing. The duration of the trial is estimated at two or three years.

For Giovanni Paolo Accinni, one of Mr. Castellucci’s lawyers, the indictment “will fall like an autumn leaf” if the trial is “fair” and “protects not only the victims, but also the innocent” .

But the prosecution will be able to count on a major witness: Roberto Tomasi, successor to Mr. Castellucci and Autostrade executive since 2015, who shows his desire to turn the page and who could prove cumbersome for his predecessor.

Autostrade belonged at the time of the tragedy to the Atlantia group, controlled by the wealthy Benetton family, which ended up ceding its share in May to the State, pushed towards the exit under pressure from the political class and popular vindictiveness.

If their former leaders find themselves on the bench of the accused, the companies Autostrade and Spea on the other hand escape the trial thanks to an amicable agreement concluded with the prosecution, providing for the payment of 29 million euros to the State.

For Raffaele Caruso, lawyer for the Committee of relatives of the victims of the Morandi bridge, this pact “constitutes a first recognition of responsibility” on the part of the two companies.

– “Life is priceless” –

“This is one of the most important trials in recent Italian history, in terms of the number of defendants, the scale of the tragedy and the injury inflicted on an entire city”, he told AFP.

Only two families of victims refused to accept the compensation offered by Autostrade, which paid out more than 60 million euros in this respect.

Egle Possetti, president of the Committee of relatives of the victims, declined the offer so as not to lose the possibility of becoming a civil party and weighing in on the trial.

“I’m sure many, not all, knew the bridge was going to collapse one day, and some pretended not to see it,” she told AFP bitterly.

The other refusal came from Roberto Battiloro, who lost his son Giovanni, a young 29-year-old videographer, in the drama, and who was offered a million euros: “My son’s life has no price, I want a real trial”.