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Search for bridge fall victims

Portuguese officials survey the Douro river
Portuguese officials survey the Douro river  

LISBON, Portugal -- Up to 70 people are feared dead after a bridge collapsed in northern Portugal.

Search and rescue teams are due to resume operations on Monday but officials fear it will be a case of recovering bodies rather than survivors.

Public Works Minister Jorge Coelho, who resigned following what has been described as Portugal's worst disaster, said the incident took place as a bus and two cars were crossing the bridge.

Only one body has so far been recovered after the vehicles plunged into the Douro river near the town of Castelo de Paiva.

The bus and the two cars fell 50 metres into the fast-flowing river after the 116-year-old bridge suddenly gave way at around 2100 GMT on Sunday.

The town's mayor Paulo Teixeira said he did not believe anyone could have survived the accident.

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Joana Cardoso reports bad weather hampers rescue

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Coelho said a new bridge had already been approved but that he had to accept the "political" responsibility for what had happened.

"I believe that it is no longer possible for me to remain," Coelho said.

Prime Minister Antonio Guterres said Coelho had acted with great dignity and was "certainly without any personal responsibility for the tragic events that have left the country in mourning."

According to local media reports, the 50-metre high bridge collapsed after one of its support pillars gave way under pressure from river waters swollen by prolonged heavy rain.

An eyewitness told SIC television that he had been about to drive onto the bridge when he saw the bus and the two cars drop out of sight.

"They suddenly disappeared. I could not believe it," Eduardo Moreira said.

He said that he left his car and ran to the point where the bridge had collapsed, but the bus was already being swept away by the current of the fast-flowing river.

Although there was still no official death toll from the accident, Guterres's spokesman said the premier was "deeply saddened" by what had happened and was in constant touch with the civil defence service.

Portuguese news agency Lisa said that passengers on the missing bus had been on an excursion to the northwestern Tras-os-Montes region to see flowering almond trees and were expected to return to Castelo de Paiva.

Teixeira said he had repeatedly warned that the 116-year-old bridge was in a dangerous condition but that the necessary central government funding to replace it had not been made available.

"I warned a long time ago about the state of the bridge and I fought as much as I could for its replacement. This is a time of mourning," Teixeira told Lusa.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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RELATED SITES:
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