ROME – Three men were arrested Tuesday in connection with a cable car accident that killed 14 people, Italian police told NBC News on Wednesday.
Luigi Nerini, the owner of the Ferrovie del Mottarone cable car company, is being held in custody for 48 hours in a prison in the city of Verbania, according to police. Director Enrico Perocchio and Gabriele Tadini, the company’s engineer, are also being held, they added.
Investigators believe the men knew that a safety braking system in the cable car was disabled, police said.
The gondola came down on Sunday as it made the 20-minute ride from Stresa – a small town on the shores of Lake Maggiore, about 90 km north of Milan – to the summit of Mottarone Mountain in the Alps, almost 400 m above sea level, level covered.
It was nearing the end of its journey when the cable broke. The gondola slid back at high speed until it pulled the cable and fell 60 feet to the ground, where it rolled over several times until stopped by trees. It was still unclear why the cable broke.
There was only one survivor, a 5-year-old Israeli boy who was taken to the Regina Margherita Hospital in Turin with broken legs and trauma to the body.
He is in a stable but critical condition and is slowly emerging from a medically induced coma but is still unconscious, hospital spokesman Paolo Berra said on Wednesday.
Investigators believe Perocchio, Nerini and Tadini “blocked the safety brakes because the cable car had anomalies in the past month that caused it to stop frequently,” said Luca Geminale, the police commander in charge of the Verbania investigation.
If the cable car stopped in the middle of the journey, “it will take many hours to restore because it has to be done manually,” he said, adding that it has “an obvious economic impact on business.”
The prosecution has opened an investigation into alleged involuntary manslaughter and negligence.
A lawyer for Nerini was not available to comment and it was not immediately possible to reach representatives for the other two.
The cables were checked in November 2020 and no problems were found, according to Maurizio Todesco, a spokesman for Leitner, the company in charge of maintaining the cable car.
“We are not aware of a problem with the braking system of this cable car, it has not been reported to us,” he said.
“We’re still trying to understand what happened and why when there was a problem we weren’t involved. On April 30th we checked the hydraulic system of the brakes and everything was fine.”
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Cable car service recently reopened after coronavirus lockdowns closed ski lifts across Italy.
It first opened in August 1970 after almost three years of work to replace a rack railway, according to the Ferrovie del Mottarone website.
The double cable system is divided into two sections, one just over a mile between Stresa and Alpino and another about two miles between Alpino and Mottarone.
It consists of two cars that go in different directions and each carry up to 40 passengers.
Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome and Rachel Elbaum from London.