Villagers blame bridge tragedy on 'jobs for the boys'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Villagers' anger increased yesterday after Portugal's human tragedy laid bare a network of government cronyism that has left roads, bridges and building works fatally neglected throughout the country.

Villagers' anger increased yesterday after Portugal's human tragedy laid bare a network of government cronyism that has left roads, bridges and building works fatally neglected throughout the country.

While black-clad women stood weeping at the churning waters of the Douro where more than 70 people plunged to their death from a broken bridge on Sunday night, men were voluble in their anger at officialdom for the long-term criminal negligence they say caused the disaster.

One villager had even been in court recently charged with joining a road block demanding the 116-year-old bridge be replaced. "I testified for half a day in court while those responsible for the real crime get off scot-free,'' he said.

President Jorge Sampaio was greeted with sullen but respectful silence when he visited the scene yesterday to attend the funeral of the only person whose body has been recovered. Mr Sampaio said he wanted a thorough examination into the tragedy "with all its implications''.

Since coming to power in 1996 the government has been increasingly accused of providing jobs for favours and has stuffed specialist engineering organisations, supposed to supervise the safety and upkeep of highways, with allies from Socialist Party ranks. Sceptical Portuguese call this phenomenon "jobs for the boys''.

Until two years ago, the regulation of bridges was done by a roads board but the politically independent engineers were replaced by young Socialist Party members with huge salaries. The board was dissolved and divided into three institutions responsible for maintaining roads. Since then, the cable news channel SIC Noticias reported yesterday, there has been no regular maintenance of road bridges. Thus there are dilapidated and potentially dangerous bridges throughout Portugal.

Publico newspaper published a photograph of an ageing viaduct near Lisbon and a list of hazardous bridges across the country about which locals have been campaigning for years. Often decisions have been shelves as overlapping regional and local authorities each attribute responsibility to the other.

Jorge Coelho, the Public Works Minister who resigned after the bridge crashed into the Douro, was at the forefront of this crusade to clear out independent political figures. The dangers - real as well as political - are now spread before the horrified public gaze while Castelo de Paiva residents stand in grief and shock beneath a ceaseless downpour.

Complaints are widespread about the slowness of the rescue attempt. By yesterday the double-decker bus that had been taking tourists on a trip to view the almond blossom had not been found on the riverbed. "They're poor people down there, that's the problem. If there'd been anyone important, they'd have had them up by now,'' a local said. Another said bitterly: "What are all these politicians doing here now just wanting to shake my hand? Where were they when we tried to warn them the bridge was going to collapse?"

Local anger is directed particularly against a sand and gravel extraction business operating a couple of kilometres downstream. One former worker said yesterday he was convinced the massive dredging from the riverbed had weakened the stone support column of the stricken bridge.

The region offers a bonanza for sand producers. Since 1997 seven companies have set up activities in the Douro basin.

They operate under licences granted by the Environments Agency and sell the material to Portugal's booming construction industry and to public works. There are restrictions but these are usually ignored.

A director of a big regional sand extraction company said: "There are no rules. Everyone dredges whatever they can,'' adding that extraction was hugely profitable.

Comments