* Concrete fragments fell from bridge for years
* Residents got used to constant repair works
* People did not ask if structure was safe
By Stefano Bernabei, Elisa Anzolin and Valentina Za
ROME/MILAN, Aug 23 (Reuters) - People living under the Italian bridge that collapsed last week with the loss of 43 lives had known for years it was crumbling: pieces kept falling on their homes and cars.
A month earlier, residents met officials in charge of maintaining the bridge in Genoa to find out what was being done.
The 1.2km-long suspension bridge, part of a privately run motorway linking the port city with France, had been slowly eroding in the sea air for decades, requiring non-stop maintenance, but life had become intolerable for residents.
Annoyed that noisy round-the-clock work was interrupting their sleep, they voiced their frustration to two officials from motorway operating company Autostrade per l'Italia, according to a recording of the July 18 meeting made public by Genoa council.
No one, however, questioned the overall safety of the 51-year-old bridge, demonstrating a public trust in institutions that is common in northern Italy and has been shaken to the core by the disaster.
Having lived for decades in the bridge's shadow, witness to continual maintenance works, the residents seemingly never thought it would collapse.
Local politician Mauro Avvenente came closest to putting the big question at the meeting, asking, "Have you done an estimate of the remaining life of this bridge?" His query, lost among a barrage of questions, elicited no specific reply.
After the disaster, in which dozens of cars and trucks plunged into a river bed along with thousands of tonnes of concrete, Avvenente said everyone knew the bridge was in bad shape, adding: "Every time I drove over it, I would accelerate."
As long ago as the 1980s, according to pensioner Salvatore Lorefice, there was a form prepared for residents to claim compensation for damage to their cars from falling concrete.
The apparent failure of all parties to think of closing the bridge or limiting traffic is now among aspects of the disaster under investigation by Genoa prosecutors.
Asked if prosecutors suspected the motorway was considered too important to be closed as a precaution, investigator Paolo D'Ovidio said: "It could be a personal viewpoint, but it's not part of the terms of the investigation."
Italy's new populist government, which has accused the previous administration of weak oversight of Autostrade, said the bridge's importance likely led its predecessor to consider closure or traffic restrictions as an extreme last step.
The viaduct fed Genoa port, connected one side of the city to the other and was one of Autostrade's busiest toll roads.
"It's likely its importance led the previous administration to consider the idea of closure, even partial, as a last resort only," the infrastructure ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
Former infrastructure minister Graziano Delrio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Local resident Giusy Moretti, a residents' committee coordinator and among those evacuated from their homes after the disaster, said she and other residents trusted Autostrade when it said it was working to ensure the bridge's safety.
Did she ever think it might collapse? "Never, never," she said. "I heard this noise I will never forget, like really long thunder ... My daughter came out to me on the terrace and said, 'The bridge has collapsed!". And I said, "Which bridge?"
At the July meeting, Autostrade maintenance executive Mauro Moretti explained to residents how the sea air had eaten away at the structure, considered an avant-garde work of engineering and the pride of Genoa when it went up in the 1960s.
Moretti also spoke of a newly approved project to repair and strengthen the bridge, news that only appeared to deepen the gloom among residents weary of maintenance works. They did not press him on its condition, though some would later say that the bridge had shaken worryingly when trucks rumbled over it.
What they did not know was that by the time of the meeting, corrosion had already consumed 10-20 percent of some of the steel rods that held up the bridge's road surface, according to a February engineering report seen by Reuters.
The rods or stays suspended the roadway from a series of towering concrete pylons. In a peculiar feature of the design by late Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, the rods were encased in concrete, making their deterioration detectable only by sophisticated scanning equipment.
The corroded stays have emerged as a focus of investigations into the disaster, which unfolded in heavy rain. Grainy cellphone footage appears to show one set of stays rupturing, sending a 200-metre section of roadway into the valley below.
In the report, prepared for the infrastructure ministry, experts briefly cited the corrosion in giving their blessing to Autostrade's plan to repair and bolster the viaduct. It gave no opinion on the overall safety of the bridge.
Asked why ministry officials had not asked for the bridge to be closed or traffic restricted, the ministry said the level of corrosion had not warranted restrictions.
Autostrade, part of the Milan-listed infrastructure group Atlantia, declined to comment.
An earlier report, compiled last October for Autostrade by Milan's Politecnico university, also identified an "anomaly" in the way the corroded stays responded to vibrations caused by traffic, wind and other phenomena. The bridge carried a stream of heavy trucks hauling containers to and from Genoa's port.
The university and Autostrade declined to release the confidential report, excerpts of which were leaked to Italian media. But Stefano Della Torre, head of the university department that produced it, confirmed the main finding and said this study alone was not enough to determine if the bridge was at risk of collapse. More work was needed, he said.
"The fact that some of the stays were not working properly confirmed the opportunity of finally carrying out that work (to strengthen them). Further checks were necessary to understand how long one could take to do that," he added.
The ministry and Autostrade declined to comment on this report.
Last year, another bridge of a similar age, also designed by Morandi, was found to be crumbling outside the town of Agrigento in Sicily.
But here, an environmental group acting with the support of residents did not trust the state operator's assurances that the structure was safe. It took their concerns to local prosecutors, who opened an inquiry in March 2017.
The group, Mareamico, said state operator Anas had assured them the Agrigento viaduct was not at risk of collapse despite concrete flaking off its pylons. It sent prosecutors a video of the decaying pylons.
"The prosecutors opened an investigation and an hour later Anas closed the viaduct," said Claudio Lombardo, a representative for Mareamico in Agrigento.
An Anas spokesman denied the inquiry had forced it to shut the bridge. In a statement at the time, it said it had long planned to begin major maintenance works. Within a few months, a branch of the viaduct was reopened to light traffic only.
Agrigento's top prosecutor, Luigi Patronaggio, remembers things differently.
"We intervened, on the hypothesis that there was a danger the bridge could collapse," he said. "We spoke with Anas, who sent their technicians who ascertained that the bridge was dangerous. On our suggestion therefore, Anas closed the bridge."
In Genoa, investigating prosecutor D'Ovidio said no formal complaint had ever been lodged with the prosecutors' office demanding an inquiry into the state of the bridge.
As Genoa prosecutors now investigate whether anyone is criminally liable for the disaster, Rome has announced a safety audit of infrastructure nationwide, with particular attention to other ageing Morandi bridges.
Giancarlo Bilotti, professor of structural analysis at the University of Venice, said it would be tough to predict collapse in bridges that, like the Genoa one, were degraded but showed no obvious structural deformity.
"What are you going to do? Close down all our highway bridges?"
Additional reporting by Ilaria Poleschi in Genoa and Milan and Alberto Sisto in Rome Editing by Mark Bendeich and Giles Elgood