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Italian Cable Car Tragedy Shakes a Town Already Wounded by the Pandemic

STRESA, Italy — The sun shone brightly Sunday on Lago Maggiore, a spectacular alpine lake that traverses the Italian-Swiss border. Fabrizio Bertoletti, the owner of a small hotel with a restaurant perched atop Mottarone mountain, was feeling upbeat.

After months of off-and-on coronavirus restrictions, restaurants and hotels here were finally starting to open. Indoor dining is still banned but, he said, “it was a beautiful day and people weren’t going to complain even if they had to eat outside.”

On a terrace with breathtaking views of the lake and the mountains that cradle it, Mr. Bertoletti’s restaurant can seat about 70, and it was completely booked. The hotel and restaurant, aptly named “Eden,” sit just a few feet from the upper station of a cable car that links the summit to the lakeside town of Stresa, a popular vacation destination almost 5,000 feet below.

“We were feeling relieved, there was a sense of re-beginning. And then … ” Mr. Bertoletti’s voice trailed off.

And then came tragedy, a few minutes after noon, when a cable car carrying 15 passengers plunged to the ground. All but one died. The sole survivor, 5-year-old Eitan Biran, lost both of his parents, his 2-year-old brother and two great-grandparents.

“All the seasons of life were in that cabin,” said the Reverend Gian Luca Villa, Stresa’s parish priest.

It is an incomprehensible loss for the victims’ families, but people here cannot help noting that it is also another in a series of blows, stretching back more than a year, for a tourism-dependent area that has suffered greatly from the pandemic.

For the hotels, restaurants, ski resorts and other businesses atop the mountain, the cable car was an economic lifeline — now severed for the foreseeable future. There is a road that leads to the summit, with a toll because it passes through the private property of a local aristocratic family, but many people preferred the faster cable car, with its stunning vistas.

Mr. Bertoletti and others are girding for a new setback, after months of coronavirus closures and restrictions, including over the winter, when Italy kept its ski resorts closed. “There hadn’t been so much snow here for years,” he said, and yet, “we couldn’t do anything.”

The coming months will mean hardships for the 100-odd families who work on the mountain, he predicted. Though the day was sunny and warm, the restaurant was empty on Tuesday afternoon, save for a few journalists and a handful of cyclists who had braved steep curves to the peak.

“My heart aches for the victims,” said Mr. Bertoletti, who appeared visibly shaken by Sunday’s events. But after more than a year of the coronavirus, “things were very tough up here already,” he said.

The cable car had almost reached the top of its run on Sunday when it suddenly slid backward and then fell some 60 feet, bouncing and tumbling down the mountainside before coming to rest on its side against the tall evergreens that cover most of the slope.

Before dawn on Wednesday, investigators based in the nearby town of Verbania arrested three people involved in the operation of the cable car. Speaking outside her office, the chief prosecutor Olimpia Bossi told reporters that the “emergency brake system of the cable car that fell had been tampered with.”

Investigators said a malfunction in the system had been identified the previous month that caused the cable car to brake spontaneously, and to ensure that the service “could continue working,” a fork-shaped clamp had been placed on the brake to stop it from engaging. Resolving the malfunction would have required a more “radical intervention,” Ms. Bossi said.

The three are under investigation on suspicion of removing a safety device resulting in a disaster.

A lawyer for the owner of the company could not be immediately reached.

On Tuesday, law enforcement officers kept watch at the crash site, a cordoned-off area, littered with broken glass, a door, a blanket, a child’s shoe.

Stresa, one of several beautiful towns lining Lago Maggiore, is usually known for its luxury lakeside hotels, the easy boat ride to the landscaped islands owned by the Borromeo family, and an annual music festival in the fall.

The lake, more than 30 miles long, lies on the boundary between the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, making it a favorite getaway for people from Milan and Turin, and it also draws many foreigners. The tourist season normally begins at Easter and lasts well into autumn, luring visitors with mild temperatures and colors of leaf-turning brilliance.

But last year, in March and April, Lombardy became the first part of Europe to be hit in full force by the new virus, which killed tens of thousands of people here.

The pandemic put a halt to most vacation plans, and several hotels around the lake never opened their doors. Proximity to Switzerland, which had less stringent coronavirus rules, penalized towns on the Italian side, said Gian Maria Vincenzi, the president of the local hoteliers’ association.

The cable car accident “is a tragedy within the tragedy of Covid, which nearly wiped out work,” he said.

Antonio Zacchera, whose family owns four hotels on Lago Maggiore, said that last year, two remained shuttered.

“About a quarter of our clients are Americans, and the fact that we were dependent on foreigners used to be an advantage,” he said. But with pandemic-induced travel restrictions, “it was a disadvantage this round.”

Like other hoteliers in the area, Mr. Zacchera made rooms available to the families of the cable-car victims. “Our first thoughts are with them,” he said.

The cable car was popular with tourists, but also with locals, who would ride to the top to get to the ski schools in winter, or just for the view. “You never thought anything bad could happen, until it does, and it’s a disaster,” said Alberto De Martini, the owner of the Enoteca Da Giannino in Stresa’s central square, as he sanitized his restaurant’s tables and chairs.

On Monday, the city commemorated the dead, ringing bells and shuttering stores for 14 minutes, one for each victim. Massimo Colla, the owner of the wine bar and bistro Al Buscion, said he kept it closed for the entire day. “When tragedy happens close to home, you feel it intensely,” he said. “It’s going to take time for the city to get over this.”

Father Villa, the priest, said that he had gathered the faithful in prayer soon after the crash and held other services on Monday. With the city, he has planned a commemorative mass on Wednesday, for the emergency workers and others who combed the mountainside searching, mostly in vain, for survivors among the dead. He said that 14 candles would be lit during the service and the victims would be named and remembered, one by one.

Marcella Severino, Stresa’s mayor of just eight months, said she was looking for a permanent way to commemorate the victims. “May 23 will be our September 11,” she said in an emotional interview in her office.

“Though citizens were in shock,” she said that locals had stepped up as best they could. Civil protection volunteers immediately arrived on the scene, along with the emergency workers. Hotel owners took in victims’ families, taxi drivers transported people without charge and local health authorities had provided psychologists.

“People come to Stresa because they feel safe,” Ms. Severino said — the town is small and tight-knit, with little crime. “Obviously, for the families of the victims, Stresa will become a nefarious name,” she said. “But I hope that they will remember how the city tried to be close to them.”

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