Two Sundays before fourteen people fell to their deaths in Italy’s worst cable car disaster in more than 20 years, hundreds of marathon runners had raced up a mountain path behind Lake Maggiore. After reaching the summit of Monte Mottarone, they made their way back down in cable cars, departing every 20 minutes for the return to the lakeside resort of Stresa below.
“It’s difficult to believe that just two weeks ago so many people – maybe 800 – ran up the mountain and all came down safely by cable car,” said Rinaldo Piraccini, who was sitting outside L’Idrovolante, a bar and restaurant next to the entrance of the funicular, with his friend Daniele Sacchi on Monday afternoon.
Among Stresa’s inhabitants of about 5,000, the marathon was seen as a lively precursor to a much hoped-for change in fortunes after the winter ski season was lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the community is mourning the lives lost on Sunday as they struggle to comprehend how the accident happened.
Piraccini and Sacchi, who were born in Stresa, meet at the bar every day. They were there on Sunday morning, enjoying the first day of good weather since Italy eased travel restrictions while watching families and groups of friends queue for the cable car.
“Yesterday was beautiful, today is melancholic,” said Piraccini.
Sacchi, who is 66, said he had been up and down the cable car countless times and remembers when the funicular opened in 1970, replacing an older system that had been in operation since the early 1960s.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful landscape – on a really clear day you can see several lakes, and even as far as Milan,” he said. “We never expected anything like this to happen. It’s unimaginable, the whole community is broken.”
Alessandro Barbieri, who manages the bar and restaurant overlooking Lake Maggiore, said: “We’re all grieving, for the people who died and their families, as well as for the people who work at the funicular. We started to see more tourists coming over the past week, yesterday morning was particularly busy.”
Just one person – a five-year-old boy who on Monday afternoon was reported to be in a stable condition at Regina Margherita hospital in Turin – survived the tragedy, believed to have happened when a lead cable broke, causing the cabin to plummet 20 metres into a wooded area below. The child’s parents, Israeli nationals resident in Italy, his younger sibling and grandparents were killed. The rest of the victims, including a six-year-old boy, were Italian and one man who was born in Iran and lived in Rome.
The cabin was just a few metres away from Monte Mottarone, its destination almost 1,500 metres above sea level, when disaster struck. The mountain is popular with both skiers and hikers, while many families take their children to the Alpyland amusement park, where there’s a rollercoaster and bobsleigh.
Investigators, who have opened a probe into suspected involuntary manslaughter and negligence, said they would look into why a safety mechanism on the cable car failed to activate. The emergency brakes ought to have held the cabin steady after the cable broke.
“We are starting from the empirical evidence. The cable sheared and the system of safety brakes clearly did not work,” said Olimpia Bossi, the chief public prosecutor of Verbania.
Meanwhile, the brake system activated on the cable car travelling in the opposite direction, bringing the cabin carrying a group of a similar size to a halt. The passengers were aided by rescue workers to safely descend from the gondola via steps.
Cabins can ordinarily hold up to 40 people but passenger capacity was reduced due to coronavirus.
As investigations get under way, Stresa residents are baffled as to how the accident occurred on a system that had been regularly checked.
The only other incident affecting the funicular in the past was in 2001, when 40 tourists had to be rescued from the Stresa-Mottarone cable system after the cabin became stuck shortly after leaving Stresa.
The system, which opened in 1970, was closed in 2014 for major renovation works carried out by the Alto Adige-based Leitner di Vipiteno, before reopening in 2016.
The company said in a statement that checks are carried out every November, and the most recent ones “did not reveal any critical issues”.
“The system was safe, none of us hesitated to use it,” said a Stresa inhabitant who asked not to be named. “There are many theories but right now it’s very hard for us to comprehend how this happened … everyone is asking themselves the same questions.”
The last cable car tragedy in Italy was in February 1998, when 20 people were killed after a US marine corps aircraft that was flying too low sliced a cable supporting the cabin they were travelling in before it crashed near the Dolomites ski resort of Cavalese. In 1976, 41 people died in an accident affecting the same cable car system.