The Hintze Ribeiro Bridge Disaster – 2001

Entre-os-Rios is an attractive, prosperous town in lovely countryside north of the River Douro. By contrast, Castelo de Paive, just to the south, is a poor rural municipality isolated by mountainous terrain and narrow, twisting roads. The Hintze Ribeiro Bridge, completed in 1886, was an impressive steel and concrete structure which for the people of Castelo de Paive was an invaluable link to jobs, schools and hospitals.

March 4 2001 was a dark and stormy night. The flow of water around the bridge, just below the confluence of the River Douro and the Tamega, was unusually fast. Both rivers have dams upstream, but these were open, and the bridge was pummeled by swirling currents. One of the pillars suddenly gave way and the central section of the bridge plunged into the turbulent river, taking a bus and three cars with it. The exceptionally powerful currents and thick sediment in the water made immediate rescue impossible and all the occupants of the sunken vehicles drowned. The tidal current swept away the bodies and some were washed up as far away as the north coast of Spain.

The whole country was horrified. The transport minister was forced to resign and bridges throughout Portugal were immediately closed for remedial work. However, the Hintze Ribeiro Bridge’s age and the force of the swollen river were not the only causes of its collapse. Years of theoretically illegal sand extraction in the vicinity had weakened its foundations and compromised its safety. Warnings from divers and engineers had been repeatedly ignored by the authorities. Now a new bridge spans the Douro and a winged figure commemorates those who died.

When: March 4 2001

Where: River Douro, near Porto, Portugal

Death toll: 53

You should know: River conditions ruled out the use of divers and sonar could give only a rough location of the submerged vehicles. This led to the invention of a flexible ‘diving bubble’, weighted and fitted with camera, lights and rudder, which sends images of anything it bumps into and is capable of operating in water made opaque by mud or pollution.

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