Residents near the area where a sinkhole appeared last week on the new Cuernavaca-Mexico City highway, trapping a car and killing both occupants, were fearful yesterday of another structural collapse on the recently opened road.
Last night, it appears, authorities decided their fears might be justified and evacuated 10 families from nearby homes.
A father and son were killed last Wednesday morning when their vehicle fell into a large sinkhole that opened up at the 93.8-kilometer mark on the Cuernavaca Paso Express near Chipitlán.
Heavy rains and an accumulation of garbage that blocked drains and consequently softened the ground were blamed for the disaster.
But after the accident there was growing concern that the Palmira Bridge and a retaining wall could collapse or that another sinkhole could appear because, according to residents, cracks in the highway’s drainage pipes were getting larger every day.
They were particularly concerned about the impact of trucks and other heavy vehicles on the road.
One man who lives right next to the highway, Miguel Sánchez, says that when it rains — even lightly — creaks can be heard coming from the retaining wall in question.
Residents are worried not only about the potential danger to motorists on the new highway but also about the possibility that the thick concrete wall could collapse on to their houses.
Sánchez, whose home is just meters from the wall and the defective drainage system, questioned the assertion by the Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) that garbage was to blame for the problem.
Instead, residents say, work carried out by a private company in conjunction with the SCT is responsible for the tragedy.
“It’s a lie that the culvert collapsed from garbage, only water runs through here. The same company covered [the pipes] with limestone and it was we residents who stopped the continuation of the work but rain beat us from removing what they did. The water rose till it was 10 meters above the pipe,” Sánchez claimed.
They concluded that the SCT was trying to hide other structural faults from them because since Friday the area had been cordoned off and residents prevented from accessing the affected area.
“What we demand is the demolition of this part of the structure [where the collapse occurred] and the construction of a bridge that allows the Santo Cristo Ravine water channel to flow freely,” residents of the affected zone stated.
State officials announced today that SCT and Civil Protection personnel visited 10 families last night and persuaded them to leave their homes for fear the retaining wall would collapse.
They were put up in a hotel — paid for by one of highway’s contractors — and were advised they would remain there for at least three days.
Authorities fear the 350-meter-long wall, with an average height of 15 meters, is in danger of collapse, just as the neighbors thought.
The SCT reopened two of the highway’s 10 lanes on Saturday night after it was shut down completely, causing traffic chaos on the weekend. Favorable results from ground-penetrating radar and bearing capacity tests verified that there were no more cavities in the road’s surface and that it could withstand the weight of traffic.
At this stage, however, semi-trailers and other large trucks are still not allowed back on the highway.
Work to reinforce the road’s stability at the site of the sinkhole has also begun with the intention of opening two more lanes as soon as possible.
Two excavators are removing tonnes of earth from the sinkhole and engineers have carried out further testing to detect the depth and extension of any fractures and the road’s capacity to bear the weight of heavy vehicles.
There have been calls for Transportation Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza to resign but he has indicated he will only do so if President Enrique Peña Nieto requests it.
However, one head has rolled over the incident. The SCT’s Morelos state delegate was dismissed the day after the accident after it was learned he didn’t relay safety concerns about the construction of the highway where the sinkhole appeared.
The two victims of the sinkhole, a father and his son, died of asphyxiation after they were trapped inside their vehicle. One sent a text message about 5:30am last Wednesday to a fellow employee to plea for help.
Autopsies revealed they died an hour and a half to two hours later.