Italy cable car crash: Boy, 5, is only survivor after cabin plunges down mountain

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Italy’s transport minister vowed Monday to establish the cause of a cable car disaster that killed 14 people, after the lead cable apparently snapped and the cabin careened back down the mountain until it came off the line and crashed to the ground. 

The lone survivor of Sunday’s horrific incident, a 5-year-old Israeli boy living in Italy, remained hospitalized in Turin on Monday with multiple broken bones. 

The Israeli foreign ministry identified him as Eitan Biran. His parents, younger brother and two great-grandparents were among the dead, the ministry said, correcting an earlier statement that had included Eitan among the victims.

Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, on Sunday. (AP/Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico Piemontese)

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Italian media identified all the other victims as residents of Italy. 

The disaster, in one of the most picturesque spots in northern Italy — the Mottarone mountaintop overlooking Lake Maggiore and other lakes near Switzerland — raised questions anew about the quality and safety of Italy’s transport infrastructure. 

Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini visited the site Monday and announced a commission of inquiry to investigate the “technical and organizational causes” of the accident, while prosecutors will focus on any criminal blame. 

Giovannini told reporters in Stresa, the lakefront town at the foot of the Mottarone peak, that the aim of the investigative commission would be to “ensure this never happens again.” 

The transport ministry said a preliminary check of the cable line’s safety and maintenance record show that the whole lift structure underwent a renovation in August 2016, and that a full maintenance check was performed in 2017. 

Late last year, inspections were performed on the cables themselves, including magnetic inspections on the primary cables of the lift: the cable that pulls the cabin up the mountain, the support cable that holds the car and the rescue cables. In December another visual check was performed, the ministry said. 

Rescuers work by the wreckage of the cable car. (AP/Vigili del Fuoco Firefighters)

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The mayor of Stresa, Marcella Severino, quoted witnesses as saying they heard a “loud hiss,” apparently when the lead cable snapped. She said the cabin reeled back down the line until it apparently hit a pylon and then plummeted to the ground. It rolled over two or three times before crashing into trees, she said. 

It wasn’t immediately clear why a brake had not engaged. 

Some of the bodies were thrown from the car and were found amid the trees, rescue workers said. 

The funicular line is popular with tourists and locals alike to scale Mottarone, which reaches a height of 4,900 feet and overlooks several picturesque lakes and the surrounding Alps of Italy’s Piedmont region. 

The mountain hosts a small amusement park, Alpyland, that has a children’s rollercoaster, and the area also has mountain bike paths and hiking trails. 

It only reopened a few weeks ago after Italy’s wintertime coronavirus lockdowns lifted, and officials hypothesized that families were taking advantage of a sunny Sunday to visit the peak and take in the view. 

The mayor declared a day of mourning for Stresa, which like tourist destinations around the country had suffered from COVID-19 lockdowns that not only slashed foreign tourism but cut local day-trip visits by Italians. 

Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini visited the site Monday and announced a commission of inquiry to investigate the "technical and organizational causes" of the accident. (AP/Vigili del Fuoco Firefighters)

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Giovannini acknowledged the community was “at a moment of rebirth” with the tourist season just beginning. “It has been particularly struck by this event and has already shown a great sense of responsibility” in sharing in the pain of the families, he said. 

The Israeli foreign ministry identified the five Israelis killed as Eitan’s parents, Amit Biran and Tal Peleg-Biran, an Israeli-born couple studying and working in Pavia. Biran’s Facebook page identifies him as a medical student at the University of Pavia. 

Their 2-year-old son, Tom Biran, was killed at the scene, as were Peleg-Biran’s grandparents, Barbara and Yitzhak Cohen. The ministry said they had arrived in Italy on May 19 to visit their granddaughter and great-grandchildren. 

Amit Biran’s sister, Aya, was not involved in the crash and was at the bedside of Eitan at Turin’s Regina Margherita hospital, the foreign ministry said, adding that other family members were flying to Italy from Israel to join her. 

The Israeli embassy was working to help repatriate the bodies to Israel, it said. 

Among the other victims were an Italian researcher, Serena Consentino, and her Iranian-born companion, Mohammadreza Shahaisavandi, according to a statement from Italy’s National Council of Research, where Consentino had a research grant. 

Also killed at the scene were Vittorio Zorloni and his wife, Elisabetta Persanini. Their six-year-old son, Mattia, died at Regina Margherita after multiple efforts to restart his heart, hospital officials said. 

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A young couple, Silvia Malnati and Alessandro Merlo, were killed while Malnati’s brother stayed down in town and frantically tried to call her, Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported, quoting the brother. 

Another couple, Roberta Pistolato and Angelo Vito Gasparro were celebrating Gasparro’s 45th birthday. La Stampa said Roberta texted her sister in Puglia right before the tragedy: “We’re going up in the funicular. It’s paradise here.” 

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