The disaster appears to be Italy's worst cable car accident in more than 20 years.

A horrific cable car accident in northern Italy has left 14 people dead after the vehicle fell on a mountain near Lake Maggiore, Reuters reported.

The cable car was carrying passengers from Stresa, a resort town in Piedmont, up the nearby Mottarone range. Then, it started to slip backwards just before reaching the end station at a nearly 1,524m peak and dropped hundreds of meters at about 12m before colliding with a pillar and plummeting to the bottom. 

The Stresa Mottarone cable car plunged into the voidTgr Rai Piemonte/Twitter

The witnesses reported hearing a 'loud hiss' when the lead cable broke. The cabin had flipped over two or three times before smashing into trees, and some of the bodies were thrown from the vehicle and were discovered amid the trees, according to rescue workers.

The fall killed 13 people, including a two-year-old baby, at the scene, and while two other children were rushed to the hospital, just the five-year-old boy survived, who now remains hospitalised in Turin in intensive care with several broken bones.

'Technical and organisational causes' are being investigated

The devastating accident, which appears to be Italy's worst case since 1998, when a low-flying US military jet sliced through the cable of a ski lift and killed 20 people, has left people questioning what went wrong and raised new concerns regarding the quality and safety of Italy's transportation system. 

The website for the Stresa-Alpine-Mottarone service said it usually takes 20 minutes to transport passengers 1,491m above sea level. The cable car originally opened in 1970 and was closed for maintenance between 2014 and 2016. Photo: BBC

The only other time this funicular was involved in a crash was in 2001. The cabin had stranded shortly after leaving Stresa, and forty tourists had to be rescued from the Stresa-Mottarone cable line.

The service, which can usually accommodate about 40 passengers, takes about 20 minutes to transport passengers, according to its website, and it was established in 1970. Following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, the service had recently reopened.

Enrico Giovannini, Italy's infrastructure and transport minister, visited the site on Monday, according to BBC, and announced a commission of inquiry to investigate the "technical and organisational causes" of the tragedy. The prosecutors will be concentrating on any criminal blame.

Lead cable broke and emergency brake failed to work

According to Olimpia Bossi, the Verbania municipality prosecutor, the brakes of the security system didn't work, "otherwise the cabin would have stopped". The reason behind this error "is naturally under investigation".

The investigation's focus will be why the lead cable broke and why the emergency brake failed to work and prevent the cabin from falling back down the mountain.

In a statement to The New York Times, Gianpaolo Rosati, professor of engineering at Milan’s Polytechnic University, stated that such accidents are often the result of a combination of human error and malfunctioning equipment.

The cables can snap due to a number of factors, he said, including corrosion or mechanical defects, such as when a winch puts too much strain on them. 

In that case, the cable car could have broken loose from the support cable that supports it and cut the cable that carries it around the mountain, causing the breaks to malfunction since they are attached to the support wire.

Giovannini stated that a preliminary check of the cable line's safety and maintenance records reveals that the entire lift structure was renovated in August 2016. A full maintenance check was conducted in 2017, and other tests on the cables themselves, including magnetic inspections on the primary cables, were performed in November and December 2020, CBC reported.

Bossi told CNN that it is too early to speculate about the cause of the crash and that the full investigation will take some time. The operator of the funicular cable car, the maintenance company, and other unspecified entities are being investigated, and no one has been charged so far. "We want to give an answer as soon as possible, but it cannot be done in a very short time."