Three people, all involved in management of the cable car, have been accused of deliberately deactivating the emergency brake that could have stopped it slamming into the side of the mountain when the cable snapped on Sunday afternoon.
“The public prosecutors office has ordered three arrests for removal or omission of precautions against accidents at work,” a spokesman for the carabinieri police told AFP.
Of the 15 people travelling in the cable car at Mottarone, a scenic location overlooking Lake Maggiore in the northwest region of Piedmont, 14 were killed.
A five-year-old boy who is currently in a critical condition was the only survivor. A nine-year-old boy was also among the victims.
The three suspects are accused of deliberately deactivating the brake that could have stopped the car flying backwards when the cable snapped, to avoid delays following a malfunction.
“It was a conscious choice, absolutely conscious. That’s it,” prosecutor Olimpia Bossi told reporters.
“It was not an occasional omission or forgetfulness. It was a conscious decision to disarm… to deactivate this emergency system in order to remedy
what we have been told were problems, technical problems that were occurring on the line,” she added.
Italian news agencies named the three suspects as Luigi Nerini, the head of Ferrovie del Mottarone, the firm which manages the cable car, and two other managers, Gabriele Tadini and Enrico Perocchio.
Local Carabinieri police official Alberto Cicognani told Radiotre radio station that the emergency brake had been deactivated.
“There were malfunctions in the cable car, the maintenance team was called,” he said, with the most recent intervention reportedly on May 3.
But “they did not fix the problem, or only in part,” Cicognani added.
“To avoid further interruptions in the service, they chose to leave in ‘fork’, which prevents the emergency brake from working.”
A second ‘fork’ was found on Wednesday morning in the area of the accident, news agency Ansa reported.
Cicognani claimed all three men admitted what had happened.
Bossi told reporters the fork had been inserted “several times”, suggesting the cable car – which was built in 1970 – had been unsafe for some time.
“Certainly Sunday was not the first day and this has been admitted,” Bossi told a press conference.
The fatal accident, which occurred near the end of a 20-minute ride up the mountain, came at the start of the country’s much-anticipated reopening to tourists after coronavirus closures – although the cable car at Mottarone had been operating since late April.
The cable car hit a pylon, then hit the ground, tumbling down the mountain for about 500 metres (1,640 feet), before coming to a stop, according to news reports.
Rescuers found five bodies still inside the cable car, with the others strewn outside.
The young survivor, a boy whose parents were born in Israel and were residents in Italy, was transported to a Turin hospital on Sunday. He was being treated for injuries to his skull, chest and abdomen and various leg fractures, media reports said.
Officials at the hospital in Turin treating the young survivor, whose parents, great-grandparents and two-year-old sibling were all killed in the crash, said on Wednesday that he had reopened his eyes.
“His reawakening is continuing and a short while ago he was extubated,” Citta della Salute hospital director Giovanni La Valle told reporters, but added that the situation remained “delicate”.
He suffered injuries to his skull, chest and abdomen as well as various leg fractures, media reports said.
The bodies of his family members, all of them Israelis, were taken from the mortuary near the crash site Wednesday to be flown to Israel.
The incident drew condolences from around the world, including from Pope Francis, while the 19th stage of the Giro d’Italia was re-routed to avoid Mount Mottarone.
“No one could imagine that what was a Sunday outing could turn into a nightmare that ended tragically,” Bossi told AFP on Tuesday.
It was the first fatal incident involving a cable car in Italy since 1998, when a low-flying US military jet severed a cable at a ski resort, killing 20 people.
The head of Italy’s biggest consumer protection group, Codacons, said the accident was “just the latest serious incident” involving the transport sector, in a list that includes the 2018 collapse of a major highway bridge in Genoa that killed 43 people.