One survivor of the Genoa bridge collapse was in his car as it plunged 45 meters (150 feet) to the ground along with falling sections of highway and concrete. He says he immediately understood that the structure was collapsing.
"It came down, everything, the world came down," said 33-year-old Davide Capello, a firefighter and soccer player who walked away traumatized but physically unharmed from Tuesday's disaster.
Excavators on Friday began clearing large sections of the collapsed highway bridge in the Italian port city on the Mediterranean Sea, searching for people still missing three days after the deadly accident that Capello said ended with an "unreal silence."
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The search entered a new phase as heavy equipment removed a large vertical section, clearing a new area to probe. Rescuers have been tunneling through tons of jagged steel, concrete blocks and crushed vehicles that plunged to the ground when the bridge suddenly broke up Tuesday during a downpour.
"It is very difficult to estimate the duration of the ... operations as we are going forward at a very slow pace and with a lot of caution," said firefighter spokesman Stefano Zanut.
Officials say 38 people are confirmed killed and 15 were injured. Prosecutors say 10 to 20 people might still be unaccounted for, so the death toll is expected to rise.
The first funerals were being held later Friday, ahead of a state funeral in Genoa on Saturday to be celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco.
The collapse occurred about midday Tuesday a day before Italy's biggest summer holiday, when traffic was particularly busy on the 51-year-old span that links two highways — one leading to France, the other to Milan — from this northwestern port city.
Capello told The Associated Press on Friday that he was at the midpoint of the bridge wearing a seatbelt when it collapsed.
"I heard a noise, a dull noise. I saw the columns of the highway in front of me come down. A car in front of me disappeared into the darkness," he said.
Capello's car, a Volkswagen Tiguan, plunged nose first, then suddenly stopped with a crash, airbags releasing around him. He said he saw only gray, as dust covered the windows.
After coming to a halt, he used the touchscreen phone in the car to call his colleagues at the Savona dispatch center, who sent help. He then called his girlfriend and his father, a retired firefighter, who told him to get out of the car immediately for fear the car would destabilize or something heavy would fall on top of it.
He said the car's windows wouldn't budge, nor would its doors. But part of the car's rear end had blasted open in the fall, so he climbed out, locating his phone under a seat on the way.
Outside, he said, "there was an unreal silence."
All around him he saw other cars that had been destroyed and piles of broken concrete and asphalt, but no signs of life. There were no calls for help. Then rescue workers arrived and helped him climb down from the rubble.
"I got out with my own legs. I don't know if anyone else managed to," he said. "I was saved by a miracle."
Capello was released from the hospital Thursday, two days after the collapse. He said had no major injuries, not even scratches.
"The car protected me. Besides God, the car also did its job," he said.
As the cleanup crews went about their work, authorities are worried about the stability of large remaining sections of the bridge that unites the city. That has prompted an evacuation order that forced about 630 people from nearby apartments, some practically in the shadow of the elevated highway.
Firefighters went inside some of the vacated apartments briefly to retrieve documents and, in at least one home, pet cats.
Officials are also urging the quick removal of tons of debris from the dry riverbed the bridge had spanned so the rubble doesn't create a makeshift dam if heavy rains fall in the flood-prone city.
Debris also must be cleared from railroad tracks, a vital link especially now that Genoa is largely cut in half by the loss of such a key highway artery.
The loss of the highway means that traffic which would normally bypass the city must now pass through it. Regional officials are working on plans to claim a private industrial road for trucks, while offering free buses to help residents traverse the city more easily.