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Brazil's fatal bike-path collapse raises questions about Olympic readiness

Brazil's fatal bike-path collapse raises questions about Olympic readiness
An elevated bike path built in anticipation of the Olympic Games this summer collapsed in Rio de Janeiro, killing two. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

Investigators on Friday were preparing to inspect the wreckage of a newly built seaside bike path that collapsed when it was struck by a wave, killing at least two people and raising questions about the city's final push to ready itself for hosting the upcoming summer Olympic Games.

Intended to form part of the city's Olympic landscape, the elevated cycleway is part of Rio's "Olympic city" initiative and reaches from one of its most popular beaches, Leblon, to the oceanfront neighborhood of Sao Conrado.

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A 150-foot stretch of the bike path collapsed when it was hit by a wave, lifting the path — and at least two people — from its concrete struts and dumping it onto the rocks below. A search for additional victims continued Friday.

The collapse took place just hours after the Olympic torch was ceremonially lit in Athens, beginning its journey to Maracana stadium for the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games on Aug. 5.

The disaster comes at a difficult time for Brazil. It is struggling with a deepening recession and the continuing fallout of the Operation Car Wash investigation into a far-flung corruption case centered on the state oil company, Petrobras. In addition, the country faces the added stress of ongoing efforts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

In a statement, Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, called the collapse an "unacceptable disaster" and said he expected repairs to be carried out quickly by the builder. Though the oceanfront bike path is not an Olympic venue, it is expected to be heavily used and is featured prominently in coverage of the Games.

A local civil engineer and member of Rio's Regional Engineering Council, Antonio Eulalio Pedrosa, told the national news channel Globo that he questioned whether the bike path had been built to withstand the powerful waves that could batter it.

"It was a design flaw," he suggested.

Engineers were assessing the structural integrity of the remaining sections of the elevated cycle path on Friday.

Speaking to the Rio newspaper Extra, an engineering risk management expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Gerardo Portela, called for the inspection of all structures being constructed in preparation for the Summer Games.

"In the rush [to finish], tests are carried out, but nobody takes notice," he told the newspaper. "There should be a safety blitz, because the construction work is being done under pressure. They need to be doubly safe."

The director of Concremat, the firm responsible for constructing the cycle path, touched on the topic last month in an article in the Globo newspaper, saying that Brazil has a problem with trying to hurry projects to meet deadlines.

"A lack of attention and of the determination to stay on track ends up leading to waste and to errors," said Mauro Vegas Filho.

On Thursday morning, Damiao Pinheiro de Araujo was among those who stopped on the bike lane to admire the immense waves, and to take photos.

"The waves were huge," he said. "Then an even bigger one came, lifted the bike path, and a piece of it fell down."

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Citing the natural power of the waves during high seas, he suggested the pathway would need to be closed at such times for safety reasons. But even still, he couldn't believe it had collapsed.

Rigby is a special correspondent.

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