STRESA, Italy — The crash of a cable car near picturesque Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, killing 14 people, occurred after a cable snapped and an emergency brake failed, investigators said Monday.
The cable car had almost reached the end station on Mottarone mountain, a nearly 5,000-foot peak, on Sunday afternoon when it suddenly started sliding backward. It slid for hundreds of meters at a height of nearly 40 feet, hitting a pillar and plunging to the ground. There was only one survivor, a 5-year-old boy.
Hikers and local residents said they heard a hissing sound, presumably when the cable snapped and twisted through the air, and then a loud bang.
“A cable broke and the car slid toward the valley without it being stopped by the braking system,” Olimpia Bossi, the lead prosecutor in the nearby city of Verbania, said in a phone interview. “We are trying to determine why this happened and what broke first.”
Ms. Bossi said that investigators were looking into possible charges against the operator of the funicular cable car, the maintenance company and other unspecified entities including manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and violations of safety measures resulting in a public transportation disaster. No one has been charged so far, and investigators are still evaluating different hypotheses, she said.
“This is a terrible moment for me, for my community, for Italy as a whole,” said Marcella Severino, the mayor of Stresa, the lakeside town where the cable car begins.
The accident appeared to be Italy’s worst cable car disaster since 1998, when 20 people were killed when a low-flying U.S. military jet cut through the cable of a ski lift in Cavalese, in the Dolomites.
Though the cable car was a tourist attraction, it was popular with locals, too.
Roberto Daveri, who works as a gardener in Stresa, said he often took the cable car to the summit, then trekked or biked down the mountain. “We’re all feeling shock and dismay,” he said.
Francesco Cotti, the head coordinator of the civil protection agency in the area and one of the first rescuers to reach the mountain top, called the accident scene “devastating.” He said that the tragedy would be a blow to tourism in an area where the economy had already been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Stresa was unusually quiet Monday as residents expressed their shock. “It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened, not here, not anywhere,” said Samantha Zanoni as she made spritzes at the Café Savoy.
After months of on-and-off coronavirus lockdown, the tourist season was just beginning, she said, and the accident could not have come at a worse time.
City officials declared Monday a day of mourning and at noon bells tolled and shops closed for 14 minutes, one for every victim.
Gianpaolo Rosati, professor of engineering at Milan’s Polytechnic University, said that cables can break for a variety of reasons including corrosion or mechanical failures, such as when a winch puts too much strain on them.
Mr. Rosati said that incidents like this are often a combination of human failure and malfunctioning equipment.
The cable car may have broken free of the support cable that holds the car and severed the cable that pulls it up and down the mountain, he said. In that case, Mr. Rosati said, the brakes would not have functioned properly, since they work on the support cable.
The company in charge of maintenance of the cable car, Leitner Ropeways, said it had carried out a magnetic inspection of the primary cables at the end of 2020 and found no problems.
The Stresa-Mottarone cable car was built in 1970. It was shut from 2014 to 2016 for renovations.
Piergiacomo Giuppani, a leading engineer in charge of safety for over 100 cable car operations in Italy, said routine checks are normally made on components, brakes and cars every morning, and that workers go on daily rides to make sure that systems are properly functioning before opening to passengers.
“I cannot remember an incident because a mechanical component or part of the infrastructure broke on a funicular,” he said. “European regulations are stringent and so are the checks.”
Mr. Rosati said that funiculars, which operate with ascending and descending cars counterbalancing each other, are generally quite safe, with the chance of systemic collapse remote.
The only survivor of the accident, Eitan Bitan, 5, lost both his parents, his 2-year old brother and their great-grandparents, who were visiting from Israel. He was under sedation in a Turin hospital following initial surgery to treat multiple broken bones. His condition was serious but stable, a hospital spokesman said.
“Silence and sorrow are what is left today of the cable car tragedy in Stresa,” a message on the official account of Italy’s firefighters read on Twitter on Monday. “Be strong, Eitan. Italy’s firemen are all with you.”
Red and white police tape blocked access to the cable car station at the summit of Mottarone mountain. Clouds hung low, occasionally opening to offer breathtaking glimpses of Lake Maggiore below.