MORBI, India — Naseema Ben Shamdar and seven members of her family were crossing the crowded Morbi suspension bridge when its cables gave way on Sunday, plunging them into the deep, wide waters of the Machchu River and killing 134 people.
Within seconds, Naseema was out of breath and desperately trying to swim to shore, struggling through a quagmire of mud and weeds. All around her, people were crying out for help.
Some of those who fell into the river were stuck in its deep silt. Some were knocked out when the aluminum gangway crashed into the water with the hundreds of people walking on it.
Many tried to climb over cables suspended in the water, sometimes losing their grip and falling on others mired in the murky water.
The Morbi disaster is one of the worst India has seen in years. The collapse of the pedestrian bridge when it was crowded with hundreds of holidaymakers raised questions about why the 143-year-old monument, billed as an artistic and technical marvel, failed just four days after it reopened after months of repairs.
Police arrested nine people, including officials from bridge operator Oreva Group, as they began to investigate the disaster.
In Morbi, shock and anger gave way to mourning and grief. Friends have lost friends and parents have lost children. In many cases, families have lost several members.
When she surfaced, Naseema could only think of her 21-year-old daughter, Muskan, who was nowhere in sight.
“One moment she was there with me and the next day she was gone. She just disappeared into the water,” Naseema said Tuesday at his home in Morbi. By the time rescuers got Naseema to safety, the river had consumed all of the other family members who were on deck that evening. She lost her daughter, her two nephews, her two nieces and her two sisters-in-law.
“We were eight family members there and now I’m the only one left alive,” Naseema said, her voice choking with tears. “Everybody is gone.”
“Everyone I loved is dead,” said Arif Shamdar, a painter. He said that, like many others, his daughter and son were excited to visit the bridge and watch the sunset. He stayed behind, asking his wife Aneesa to keep the children, Aliya and Afreed, safe as he expected a huge crowd.
Barely an hour later, a relative named Shamdar, telling him about the disaster. Hurrying to the site, he saw the bridge snapped in two, its metal walkway dangling. The banks on both sides of the river were littered with corpses. For five hours, Shamdar scoured the waters in search of his family. He swam to the middle of the river. He got on an inflatable raft and shouted their names.
Disheartened and anxious, he rushed to a nearby hospital where he saw his two children lying dead on stretchers. His wife was on the floor, also dead.
“I screamed and screamed and asked the doctors to help me. But there was nothing they could do. My family had already been dead for hours,” Shamdar said.
Hundreds of people gathered in his neighborhood on Monday for the funeral. His wife, two children and his niece Muskan were buried in the local cemetery. Three other family members were buried in an ancestral cemetery in a nearby town.
At the city’s crematoriums and burial sites, workers said they had never seen so many dead brought in for the last rites in a single day.
“I have never seen anything like it in my life,” said Gaffar Shah, caretaker of the main Muslim cemetery in Morbi. He helped bury 25 bodies on Monday. “Entire families have been wiped out,” he said.
Throughout Morbi, a city renowned for its ceramics and watchmaking industries, friends, relatives and neighbors gathered in the homes of the bereaved, emerging in pairs or threes from the town’s narrow streets.
“We are devastated,” said Raydhan Bhai, whose two nephews drowned in the disaster.
Yash Devadana, 12, and Raj Bhagwanji Bhai, 13, were cousins who lived in the same house. They were also good friends, their relatives said, always playing together and often swimming in the river.
On Sunday, the two cousins left for the bridge hand in hand. By midnight they were both dead, having perished in those same waters.
As mourners sat next to photo frames adorned with garlands of Yash and Raj on Tuesday, Raydhan Bhai pointed to Yash’s pet dog. He didn’t eat, waiting for Yash to come back, he said.
“Yash loved the dog and even slept with him in his bed,” Raydhan Bhai said. “Even his pet felt Yash’s absence.”