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story.lead_photo.caption A worker inspects the area Wednesday around the collapsed Morandi highway bridge in Genoa, Italy.

ROME -- Top Italian officials on Wednesday called for the resignation of the heads of the company that operates many of the nation's roadways, including a highway bridge in Genoa that collapsed, killing at least 39 people.

Calling the collapse "unjustifiable," the government leaders also threatened to impose a fine on the company, Autostrade per l'Italia, and turn over highway management to the state. The death toll rose to at least 39 from Tuesday's disaster, according to The Associated Press, citing police and prosecutors.

"The guilty party of the tragedy in Genoa has a name and surname, and it's Autostrade per l'Italia," Italy's deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, wrote on Facebook before viewing the rubble of the Morandi Bridge by helicopter. "Autostrade should've carried out maintenance and didn't. We need to pull back concessions and inflict fines."

The questions about the company's role in the collapse arose as the search to find bodies and potential survivors in the wreckage of steel and concrete continued. It is unclear what caused the bridge to give way Tuesday during a heavy rainstorm.

Autostrade per l'Italia said in a statement that maintenance work had been ongoing, and experts said that the risks of reinforced concrete infrastructure can increase after several decades.

The bridge collapse, which happened the eve of Italy's biggest summer holiday, caused trucks and cars to plummet more than 150 feet. There were 16 injuries.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declined to say how many people are still missing, and he added that trying to locate them was particularly difficult, because of the holiday.

"It's not easy to distinguish between who doesn't respond because they are on the other side of the world and turned off their phone to relax" on vacation, and "who's not responding because they are under the rubble," he said.

Gallery: Italy bridge collapse

He said he hoped the death toll would not rise.

"Miracles are still possible," Salvini said.

Authorities urged the quick removal of tons of debris from a dry riverbed so that the rubble doesn't create a makeshift dam if heavy rains fall in the flood-prone city on the Mediterranean.

Debris also must be cleared from railroad tracks, a vital link especially now that Genoa is largely cut in half by the loss of such a key artery, Premier Giuseppe Conte said.

Authorities worried about the stability of remaining large sections of the bridge, prompting a wider evacuation order and forcing about 630 people from nearby apartments, some practically in the shadow of the elevated highway. Firefighters went inside some of the vacated apartments briefly to retrieve documents and, in at least one home, pet cats.

The investigation into the collapse and the questions about accountability are likely to pose one of the first major challenges to Italy's new government, which took power 2½ months ago. That government, composed of two populist parties, has wrestled internally over infrastructure projects and has already pledged spending increases elsewhere.

Danilo Toninelli, Italy's transport minister, called Wednesday for a "Marshall Plan" to improve the country's infrastructure, much of which was built in the 1960s and 1970s. He said the government has started a process to levy fines of $170 million on Autostrade per l'Italia, which is majority-owned by Atlantia, publicly traded on the Milan Stock Exchange. Toninelli did not explain how he had accounted for such a prospective fine.

On Tuesday, shares of Atlantia suffered their biggest intraday drop since 2008, according to Bloomberg, but recovered somewhat and finished the day down 5.4 percent.

Autostrade per l'Italia operates some 1,800 miles of highway in the country.

Lanfranco Senn, a professor emeritus of transport economics at Bocconi University in Milan, said the company is "practically a monopoly" in Italy.

"It has such a big network to take care of," said Senn, who noted that there have been several other deadly -- but smaller -- infrastructure disasters in Italy in recent years.

"It may be that the maintenance has been underestimated across the country," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Chico Harlan of The Washington Post; and by Frances D'Emilio, Colleen Barry, Paolo Santalucia, Simone Somekh and Angela Charlton of The Associated Press.

Photo by AP/ANTONIO CALANNI
Rescuers work Wednesday around the collapsed Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy. As the death toll rose to 39, top Italian officials demanded the resignation of the heads of the company that operates the bridge. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declined to say how many people are still missing in the collapse, which happened Tuesday on the eve of Italy’s biggest summer holiday.

A Section on 08/16/2018

Print Headline: Italian bridge's operator blamed in fall

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