The lethal bridge that claimed 67 lives of a coach party in search of almond blossom

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The Independent Online

Huddled together in the mist, the relatives of 70 people believed to have been swept to their deaths when a century-old bridge collapsed into Portugal's mighty River Douro early yesterday, gathered at the scene for news of their loved ones. But as night fell hopes of finding survivors of Europe's worst road accident for more than a decade were remote.

Huddled together in the mist, the relatives of 70 people believed to have been swept to their deaths when a century-old bridge collapsed into Portugal's mighty River Douro early yesterday, gathered at the scene for news of their loved ones. But as night fell hopes of finding survivors of Europe's worst road accident for more than a decade were remote.

"I had nine relatives aboard the bus," said Esmeralda Fernandes, convulsed with grief as she stood near the twisted remains of the bridge which had been torn apart by surging flood waters. Another woman fell to the ground calling: "My son, my son."

Crews in powerboats took hours to string steel safety cables across the fast-flowing torrents, fastening them to frogmen who dived in the murky water.

But with visibility reduced to nil, rescue teams had to bring in sonar equipment to try to find the bus most of the victims were in, on the river bed. "It could be a week of work" said one rescuer.

As the Portuguese government declared two days of mourning, the torrential rain and high winds that had swollen the river to unprecedented levels, continued unabated. By evening, only three bodies had been picked up, about five miles downstream, a sign of the strength of the Douro's current.

"Whole families have disappeared, been wiped out," said Paulo Teixeira, mayor of the nearby town of Castelo de Paiva who said he had complainedfor years about the poor state of the bridge.

Thirty-three of the victims came from Raiva, an isolated village overlooking the winding river in Portugal's lush wine growing region. Entire families, some spanning three generations, were killed as they returned from an annual day out to admire the flowering almond trees which had just come into bloom in the Tras-Os-Montes region of north-western Portugal.

Yesterday in Raiva they were converting the village sports hall into a morgue. The basketball hoops had been moved aside and 50 tables, ready for bodies brought in from the nearby secondary school. Outside, the Portuguese flag flew at half-mast.

The Clarks shoe factory where some of the dead had worked, closed its doors as a mark of respect and mourning. Stunned villagers gathered to comfort each other on street corners.

The priest who had christened and married almost all the 33 people from Raiva and nearby Oliv'Arda who were killed, failed to restrain his tears as he told the tragedy had wiped out his congregation and church choir.Father Jose Mota, said his church graveyard was too small to bury so many bodies. Graves would have to be disinterred to make space for family members.

"This will be in the memory of Raiva and Oliv'Arda forever," he said. "Every year they go and see the almond trees in flower. They are very beautiful. I have married almost everyone. There are families with a husband and wife, their daughter and grandchildren killed.''

Raiva is a devout catholic community which for centuries has eked out a living from growing grapes for Vino Verde wine, olives and honey for export to nearby Porto.

The leader of Fr Mota's church choir Joaquim Vieria Faria, 65, who helped organise the annual bus trip, died with his wife in the Duoro.

Manuel Viera, mayor of neighbouring Bairos where at least four people including two children were killed, said: "He was very well known in the area, but everybody knows one another here. This is the biggest tragedy anyone can remember but it could have been avoided. We have been warning the Government about this bridge for years.''

Amid the sorrow and disbelief is anger. Only a fortnight ago the authorities in Castelo de Paiva, the area's main town, dominated by the Clarks shoe factory which employs 1,000 local people warned the Government, about the poor state of the bridge. But the experts dispatched to examine the Entre-Os-Rios gave it a clean bill of health and told the locals there were no serious safety concerns.

In the cafés, the satellite television gave the latest news from the scene. Some families did not know their loved ones had been killed until yesterday morning, for the collapse of the 116-year-old bridge also brought down the telephone lines.

In Cafi O Cantinho, a small rundown bar on a hillside in Raiva, Rui Miguel Moreira Gomes, 22, tried to come to terms with the loss of his parents, Americo, 46, and Maria, 45.

They had been looking forward to their special day out and they were in high spirits when they were picked up by the bus before 6am on Sunday. Rui said his 23-year-old sister would help look after their five younger brothers and sisters. "[My parents] go on this trip every year," he said. "I am totally shocked for my family. I am the only one who is married."

The tiny café, with its billiards table and plastic chairs, serves the close-knit community where sheep graze freely, grapes, olives and orange trees grow on the hillsides. That anger is not far below the shock and sorrow. They are deeply angry at the state of the roads and bridge. Only a month ago in protest, some of them blocked the road with a bus to try to draw attention to the lack of Government action. They were questioned by police.

"This need not have happened," said Vitor de Viera who serves in the bar. "There are some families now without anyone to support them. I knew everybody on that bus - they all came in here.

The village is only 50 kilometres from the busy commercial torn of Porto, the centre for port wine which has had trade links with Britain stretching back to 1703.

But isolated by perilous roads, the poor but picturesque rural communities are even more isolated now that the bridge, their main link to Porto, is down.

Yesterday the town's elders met to discuss the tragedy. For over two years they have been warning the Government that the bridge may be unsafe, but nothing has been done. Their calls became more urgent since Christmas after the muddy and defiant Duoro River which dissects the rural region burst its banks after months of torrential rain..

The flashing lights of police cars and ambulances seemed incongruous racing through the peaceful countryside. As groups of men looked on in shock, the first bodies arrived in ambulances to the village gymnasium. The nearby medical centre, was quiet, for nothing could be done for the victims.

"These were old people mostly, and children, going to see the same places that they see every year,'' said Antonio Martins, 66, the village's retired secondary school teacher.

"We can hardly believe so many people that everyone knew had been killed. How can we recover from something like this?''

The farmers of the Duoro Valley are a resilient people and life moves slowly here, but they have a historical memory stretching back hundreds of years.

It may take centuries more before they can forget the pain of the tragedy of the Entre-os-Rios bridge.

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