MORBI, India — Naseema Ben Shamdar and seven members of her family were making their way across Morbi’s jam-packed suspension bridge when its cables gave way Sunday, plunging them into the deep, wide waters of Machchu river and killing 134 people.
In just seconds, Naseema was gasping for breath and trying desperately to swim to shore, struggling through a quagmire of mud and weeds. All around her, people were pleading for help.
Some of those who fell into the river were stuck in its deep silt. Some were knocked unconscious by the aluminum walkway that crashed into the water along with the hundreds of people who had been walking on it.
Many tried to climb cables dangling into the water, sometimes losing their grip and falling on others mired in the murky water.
The disaster in Morbi is one of India’s worst in years. The collapse of the pedestrian bridge while it was crowded with hundreds of holiday goers has raised questions about why the 143-year-old landmark, touted as an artistic and engineering marvel, failed just four days after reopening after months of repairs.
Police arrested nine people, including managers of the bridge’s operator, Oreva Group, as they began investigating the catastrophe.
In Morbi, shock and anger were overtaken by mourning and grief. Friends have lost friends and parents have lost children. In many cases, families have lost several members.
When she surfaced, Naseema could only think of her 21-year-old daughter, Muskan, who was nowhere in sight.
“One moment she was there with me and the next she was gone. She just disappeared in the water,” Naseema said Tuesday at her home in Morbi. By the time rescuers pulled Naseema to safety, the river had consumed every other family member who had been on the bridge that evening. She lost her daughter, her two nephews, two nieces and two sisters-in-law.
“We were eight family members there, and now I am the only one left alive,” Naseema said, her voice choking with tears. “Everyone is gone.”
“Everyone I loved is dead,” said Arif Shamdar, a painter. He said that like many others, his daughter and son were excited to visit the bridge and watch the sunset. He stayed behind, asking his wife Aneesa to keep the children, Aliya and Afreed, safe because he expected a huge crowd.
Barely an hour later, a relative called Shamdar, telling him of the disaster. Rushing to the site, he saw the bridge snapped in two, its metal walkway dangling. Banks on both sides of the river were strewn with bodies. For five hours, Shamdar scoured the waters searching for his family. He swam to the middle of the river. He got on an inflatable raft and screamed their names.
Crestfallen and anxious, he rushed to a nearby hospital where he saw his two children lying dead on stretchers. His wife was on the floor, also dead.
“I screamed and screamed and asked doctors to help. But there was nothing they could do. My family had already been dead for hours,” Shamdar said.
Hundreds of people gathered in his neighborhood Monday for the funeral. His wife, two children, and his niece Muskan were buried in the local graveyard. Three other family members were buried in an ancestral burial ground in a nearby town.
In the town’s crematoriums and burial grounds, workers said they had never seen so many dead brought for final rites on a single day.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Gaffar Shah, caretaker of the main Muslim graveyard in Morbi. He helped bury 25 bodies on Monday. “Entire families have been wiped out,” he said.
All through Morbi, a city famed for its ceramics and clock industries, friends, relatives and neighbors gathered in the homes of the mourning, emerging from the town’s narrow lanes in twos and threes.
“We are devastated,” said Raydhan Bhai, whose two nephews drowned in the disaster.
Yash Devadana, 12, and Raj Bhagwanji Bhai, 13, were cousins who lived in the same house. They were good friends, too, their relatives said, always playing together and often swimming in the river.
On Sunday, the two cousins left for the bridge hand in hand. By midnight, they were both dead, having perished in those same waters.
As mourners sat beside garlanded photo frames of Yash and Raj on Tuesday, Raydhan Bhai pointed to Yash’s pet dog. It hasn’t eaten, waiting for Yash to return, he said.
“Yash loved the dog and even slept with it in his bed,” Raydhan Bhai said. “Even his pet has felt Yash’s absence.”