At least 35 people have been killed 'including a baby' and dozens more are feared dead after a huge 260ft section of a highway bridge collapsed during a fierce storm in the Italian city of Genoa.
Cars fell hundreds of feet along with tonnes of twisted steel and concrete debris into a river, railroad tracks and an industrial zone below when the Morandi bridge gave way at 11.30am local time.
The disaster shocked the world but many locals feared the 50-year-old bridge would collapse for years and held their breath every time they crossed the vital arterial road.
'The state of the bridge always concerned us. Nobody has ever crossed that bridge with a light heart,' Genoa resident Elizabeth told the BBC.
'Everybody has always done it praying that the bridge wouldn't fall down. Today that happened.'
Officials fear 'dozens' are dead in what is being described as 'an immense tragedy.' There are reports that a baby is among the victims and that two people died in their homes when the giant structure collapsed.
Amid 'apocalyptic' scenes, up to 35 cars and three heavy trucks cascaded into the valley below as they were making their way over the bridge.
One witness said he saw the 50-year-old structure 'wobbling' minutes before it gave way as dramatic footage showed it being struck by lightning seconds before it crumbled.
'It was just after 11.30 when we saw lightning strike the bridge and we saw it going down,' eyewitness Pietro told Italy's Ansa news agency.
One unnamed witness said: 'We heard an incredible roar and first we thought it was thunder very close by.
'We live about three miles from the bridge but we heard a crazy bang... We were very scared... Traffic went completely haywire and the city was paralysed.'
Laurie Merchant, who was in Genoa at the time, told MailOnline: 'The storm this morning was something else: very heavy rain and relentless. There was thunder like never before which sounded like a cannon. I was about five minutes from the bridge and I heard a loud crumbling when it went down.
'All you can hear in the city is the sirens of the emergency vehicles going non-stop from the bridge to the hospital.
'The air ambulance has been hovering most of the day. There are huge numbers of people outside the hospital and on the main shopping street there are two vans for people to donate blood.'
Rescuers desperately hunting for survivors are now fearful of explosions from damaged gas lines and some areas have been evacuated while safety checks take place.
Dramatic photos shows how a green truck had stopped just short of the gaping hole in the bridge, which was built on the A10 toll motorway in northwestern Italy in the 1960s. Work to shore up its foundations was being carried out at the time of the collapse, highway operators say.
The exact cause of the disaster, the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, is not yet clear but Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said it showed the dilapidated state of the country's infrastructure and a lack of maintenance, adding that 'those responsible will have to pay.'
'There has not been sufficient maintenance and checks, and safety work for many bridges and viaducts and bridges in Italy constructed, almost all, during the 1960s,' he said.
Mr Toninelli said the operator of the section of highway including the bridge claimed maintenance work was up to date.
However, he added a €20 million (£17.8 million) bidding process for significant safety work on the bridge was coming up.
The bridge operator said there was no way to predict that the structure would come down.
Autostrade's Genoa area director, Stefano Marigliani, said: 'The collapse was unexpected and unpredictable.'
'The bridge was constantly monitored and supervised well beyond what the law required. There was no reason to consider the bridge dangerous.'
Revealed: Experts warned two years ago that 50-year-old 'uneven' Genoa bridge should be demolished because no one would pay for maintenance
The motorway bridge which collapsed in Genoa, Italy, killing at least 35 people had been the subject of a series of 'exorbitant' maintenance works and had been causing issues for decades, it has emerged.
Engineering experts had warned that it would be more cost effective to knock the bridge down than to continue to repair the 'uneven' construction.
The Morandi Bridge, built in 1967, was a main thoroughfare connecting the A10 and A7 highways and had therefore been heavily trafficked for more than 50 years.
Tuesday morning was no different, and dozens of cars fell several hundred feet when a 260ft section of the concrete bridge collapsed shortly after 11.30am.
Transport and Infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli called the incident 'an enormous tragedy', vowing that those responsible for the collapse would 'pay up'
'The first information would seem to say that the maintenance had been carried out, but it can not be so. These tragedies can not happen in a civilized country like Italy.'
Despite its majestic design, the structure of the Morandi Bridge, using two types of reinforced concrete, had caused issues over the decades and required expensive maintenance.
In the early 1990s, the suspension cables along the bridge had to be replaced, and further restructuring work was carried out in 2016.
In 2016, Antonio Brencich, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Genoa warned that the Morandi Bridge's maintenance costs 'are so exorbitant that it would be cheaper to build a new one'.
In the article, quoted by Il Tempo, Professor Brencich says issues with the bridge being uneven and 'semi-horizontal' had plagued the construction since the early 1980s.
In December 2016, Genoan newspaper Il Secolo XIX claimed maintenance of bridges in the area had been lacking funds because authorities 'preferred to allocate more funds to new works'.
The paper accused officials in the Liguria region of only making important restorations when issues with bridges had become obvious.
His deputy Edoardo Rixi added: 'It's not acceptable that such an important bridge... was not built to avoid this kind of collapse.'
The CNR civil engineering society is calling for a 'Marshall Plan' to repair or replace tens of thousands of bridges in Italy that have surpassed their lifespans, having been built in the 1950s and 1960s with reinforced concrete.
The group said the bridges were built with the best-known technology of the time, but that their working lifespan is 50 years.
It added that in many cases, the cost to update and reinforce the bridges is more than it would cost to destroy and rebuild them.
The CNR called for a major program to replace most of the bridges with new ones that would have a lifespan of 100 years.
It cited previous collapses, including one in April 2017 in the northern province of Cuneo that crushed a carabinieri police car, though the officers and the driver they had pulled over in a traffic stop heard the creaking noise and got out of the way in time.Another was an overpass in the northern city of Lecco that collapsed under exceptional weight, crushing a car and killing the driver.
Italy's anti-establishment government which took office in June has pledged to increase public investments and lobby the European Commission to have the extra spending excluded from EU deficit calculations.
'The tragic facts in Genoa remind us of the public investments that we so badly need,' said Claudio Borghi, economics spokesman of the right-wing League party, which governs with the 5-Star Movement.
The office of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was heading to Genoa in the evening and would remain there on Wednesday. Defence minister Elisabetta Trenta said the army was ready to offer manpower and vehicles to help with the rescue operations.
Firefighters searching the rubble with dogs for survivors have so far rescued two survivors and one has been flown to hospital by helicopter.
An official with Italian firefighters, Amalia Tedeschi, said many cars and trucks had been involved in the collapse. She confirmed that two injured people had been extracted alive from vehicles.
Tedeschi said that sniffer dogs are at work in the rubble looking for more injured and victims. Heavy equipment was being moved in so they could lift pieces of the bridge. She said the part of the bridge that collapsed was about 80 yards long.
A witness told Sky Italia television he saw several vehicles on the bridge when it collapsed. Video captured a man screaming 'oh god, oh, god' as the bridge went down.
Some 600ft of the Morandi bridge collapsed over an industrial zone, raising concerns gas lines may have been damaged.
The disaster occurred on a highway that connects Italy to France and other vacation resorts on the eve of a major Italian holiday, Ferragosto meaning traffic would have been heavier than usual as many Italians traveled to beaches or mountains.
One witness has told local Italian newspaper Il Secolo XIX that the bridge was wobbling this morning before the disaster.
He told the paper: 'I walk the Morandi Bridge almost every day. The bridge often oscillates, for trucks, the tails ... but this morning I had the feeling, maybe just the suggestion, that this oscillation was much more marked than usual.
'I walked back to the house on my way back a quarter of an hour before it collapsed.'
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said 200 firefighters were responding to the accident.
'We are following minute by minute the situation for the bridge collapse in Genoa,' Salvini said on Twitter.
The Morandi Bridge, the work of celebrated Italian civil engineer Riccardo Morandi who died in 1989, was inaugurated in 1967.
It is just over three-quarters of a mile long, with the longest section between supports measuring 200 yards.
Restructuring work was carried out in 2016. The highway operator said work to shore up the foundation of the bridge was being carried out at the time of the collapse, adding that the bridge was constantly monitored.
The bridge is a main thoroughfare connecting the A10 highway that goes toward France and the A7 highway that continues north toward Milan.
Another Morandi bridge in Venezuela, built to a similar design to the one in Genoa, partially collapsed in 1964 after being hit by an oil tanker.
Commenting on today's disaster, Ian Firth, the Past President of The Institution of Structural Engineers, told MailOnline: 'It is too early to say what caused the tragic collapse, but as this reinforced and prestressed concrete bridge has been there for 50 years it is possible that corrosion of tendons or reinforcement may be a contributory factor.
'There are no obvious signs to say what specifically triggered the collapse at this time; the fact that there was reported to be a storm at the time may or may not be particularly relevant.
The bridge is a very unusual design, very similar to its much larger cousin, the Lake Maracaibo bridge in Venezuela, also designed by Riccardo Morandi and completed six years earlier in 1962.
'The A-frame towers which support the concrete-encased stay cables combine with V-shaped supports below the deck to create a stiff arrangement which is not common in cable stayed bridges.
'This deals with potential unbalanced loads which arise due to the multi-span nature of the structure. As yet, there is no evidence to say whether any impact occurred; it is too early to say what triggered the collapse.'
This afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron offered Italy his country's help this afternoon.
The president's office said that Macron, who is currently staying at a presidential residence in southern France, had a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
In French and Italian, Macron wrote on Twitter: 'Our thoughts go to the victims, their relatives and all the Italian people. France stands by Italy in that tragedy and is ready to provide all necessary support.'
The disaster occurred on a major highway that connects Italy to France and other vacation resorts.
Tuesday's incident is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, a country prone to damage from seismic activity but where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of economic stagnation.
In March last year a couple were killed when a motorway overpass collapsed on their car near Ancona on the country's Adriatic coast.
A pensioner died in October 2016 when his car was crushed by a collapsing bridge over the SS36 dual carriageway between Milan and Lecco.
That incident was blamed on bureaucratic bungling which led to a fatal delay in the bridge being closed after it was reported to be showing significant cracks.
Today's disaster also comes days after another major accident near the northern city of Bologna. In that case, a tanker truck carrying a highly flammable gas exploded after rear-ending a stopped truck on the road and getting hit from behind itself.
The accident killed one person, injured dozens and blew apart a section of a raised eight-lane highway.