By Shivam Patel
MORBI, India (Reuters) - A security guard stood at either end of a 145-year-old footbridge in the Indian town of Morbi on Sunday evening, blowing whistles and repeatedly asking surging crowds to get off the structure spanning the murky Machchhu river, witnesses said.
One of the six people who saw the bridge collapse and gave an account of its final moments to Reuters said he and his colleagues also shouted from the shore to warn of the danger.
At least 135 people were killed when the structure, built in 1877, gave way, sending victims plunging into the waters below.
Police estimate the number of people on the bridge at around 200. Local officials said about 400 tickets had been sold, although not necessarily to be on the bridge at the same time.
"We even called out to people to tell them that they should leave because we could see there was a lot of crowding," Ajay Kumar told Reuters, saying he and his colleagues were on the eastern river bank watching the crowd build.
"Then the bridge collapsed in front of our eyes," the 32-year-old construction worker said.
He said women and children were among those who drowned, adding that he heard them wailing and screaming.
In the hours before the accident, several hundred people gathered on and around the 233 metre (255 yard) bridge that reopened last week after months of renovation work.
A single private security guard was present at each end of the bridge but they struggled to control the surge of sightseers as evening fell, four other witnesses and a survivor said. The witnesses did not know whether the security guards had survived.
"'Please listen to us, don't shake the bridge, don't crowd, keep moving' the guards were saying, but people were not listening," said Pankaj Kumar, another construction worker who was on the riverside.
Kumar's account was echoed by three other witnesses and by Mahesh Bhai Chavda, a survivor who said he entered the bridge with his friends minutes before the collapse, via one of the ticket booths at either end of the bridge.
"We saw security guys blowing their whistles at people asking them to not crowd and keep moving," said Chavda, 18.
Graphic of the bridge collapse: https://graphics.reuters.com/INDIA-ACCIDENT/BRIDGE/akpeqgjawpr/index.html
CCTV footage showed a group of young men taking photos while others tried to rock the bridge from side to side in the moments before the cables snapped and they plunged from the narrow walkway.
Police have so far arrested nine people on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Those arrested included ticketing clerks and three security guards who were on duty when the bridge collapsed, senior police official Ashok Kumar Yadav said. Reuters could not confirm whether the two guards who witnesses reported seeing at the bridge were among the three arrested.
"The incident happened due to lack of crowd regulation and management," Yadav, who is leading a government investigation into the incident, told Reuters.
Late on Tuesday, a child's blue shoe lay near the entrance to the bridge that bears the signage of Oreva, best known as a maker of clocks and electrical products, and which was awarded a contract this year to maintain and manage the bridge.
Municipal official Sandeepsinh Zala said Oreva had not informed local authorities about reopening the bridge.
An Oreva spokesperson has not replied to repeated calls and text messages from Reuters since Sunday to seek comment on the incident and the witness accounts.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted an Oreva spokesperson on Sunday as saying: " ... the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other."
The chaotic scenes continued at Morbi's main government hospital.
Hundreds of people gathered there, desperate to find out about their loved ones, and bodies lay on stretchers and on beds inside wards, volunteer helper Bhaskar Wala said.
A staff member, who asked not to be named, said there was little space to move around because of the crowding and it was hard to identify the living from the dead.
"People were sharing photographs of their family members with us," said Wala, 33. "I helped identify eight members of the one family all of whom died."
(Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Alison Williams)