Three people were arrested by Italian police on Wednesday in connection with Italy’s cable car disaster, with prosecutors alleging that a safety brake had been deliberately deactivated by the operators of the tourist attraction.
The arrests came as doctors reported that the sole survivor of the tragedy, a five-year-old Israeli boy, had opened his eyes as he continued to receive treatment in hospital for severe injuries, including several broken bones.
Eitan Biran was the only one of 15 passengers in the cable to survive the accident and lost his mother, father, two-year-old brother and two great-grandparents.
“The gradual reawakening (from sedation) continues and he was just extubated,” said Giovanni La Valle, the director-general of the Regina Margherita paediatric hospital in Turin.
The young Israeli family had been living in the northern Italian city of Pavia. A prayer ceremony for the victims was held on Wednesday by members of the Jewish community living in the region.
The accident happened on Sunday when a cable holding up the gondola snapped, sending it hurtling back along the line until it smashed into a pylon and then plummeted to the ground, rolling several times before being blocked by pine trees.
Police arrested the owner of the company that manages the cable car route, which connects the town of Stresa with a mountain overlooking Lake Maggiore, as well as its director and manager. Police alleged that they had deliberately used a fork-shaped clamp to disable the emergency brake in order to circumvent problems with the running of the cable car.
The emergency brake had been kicking in repeatedly, hampering the operation of the popular funicular route, according to Lt Col Alberto Cicognani, a senior police officer.
“The maintenance team had not been able to resolve the problem, or at least only in part,” he said.
All three of the arrested men had admitted to tampering with the emergency brake system, he said.
The clamp, which should have been removed to allow the emergency brake to operate, had been left in place so as to “bypass the problem … and avoid interruptions to the service,” said Olimpia Bossi, the prosecutor investigating the accident.
Prosecutors suggested that the operators of the funicular line had been anxious not to miss out on business, just as Italy starts to open up again to tourism after more than a year of intermittent lockdowns.
The cable car had been operating like that for some days, prosecutors said, having reopened a month ago.
“This news is another blow,” said Marcella Severino, the mayor of the town of Stresa. “We now know that the tragedy could have been avoided.”
Of the 14 people who were killed, five were from the same Israeli family, one was a young man of Iranian origin and the rest were Italian.