Cargo Ship Collapses Baltimore Bridge

Arnold & Itkin

Around 1:30 AM on Tuesday, March 26, a cargo ship, the Dali, experienced power issues and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which quickly collapsed, sending an overnight construction crew and multiple vehicles into the frigid river below.

Six construction workers are still missing and presumed dead, while two people have been rescued from the water. One of them was listed in good condition and has been discharged. The other survivor was initially reported “in very serious condition”, according to the Baltimore Fire Department, and is being treated at a trauma center.

Search-and-rescue efforts continued several hours after the accident. Divers have been searching the waters, despite challenges presented by the tides, and sonar has detected five vehicles, three of which are passenger cars, and another of which is a cement truck.

The bridge and its occupants plunged into 47-degree water, a temperature at which hypothermia can quickly set in.

“This is a dire emergency,” said the director of communications for the Baltimore Fire Department, one that is being considered a “developing mass casualty event”.

The Key Bridge

The Francis Scott Key Bridge crosses the Patapsco River over the Baltimore harbor, a crucial span of Interstate-695. This bridge was relied on by thousands of commuters daily, and the Port of Baltimore is one of the nation’s busiest. The bridge collapse is wreaking havoc on local transportation and even national commerce.

Built in 1977, the Key Bridge last had an inspection in May of 2021. In that inspection, the Federal Highway Administration reported the structure as being in fair condition, with its deck, superstructure, and substructure conditions deemed “satisfactory”, with no indications that repairs were needed.

Maryland’s transportation secretary Paul Wiedefeld has said that the repairs being carried out by the construction crew at the time of the accident were not to address any structural issues with the bridge. Some reports say the cement work being done was to fix potholes. That said, the bridge appears to have lacked crucial pier protections, which could have at least mitigated, if not entirely prevented, the damage to the bridge.

Officials were only given about 90 seconds of advance notice from the mayday call sent by the Dali, during which time they managed to stop additional traffic from flowing onto the Key Bridge before it crumpled and fell.

The Dali & Recent Container Vessel Incidents

The Dali is a Singapore-flagged, 948-foot long shipping container vessel chartered by Maersk, though no Maersk crew members or personnel were reported onboard during the incident. It had only just embarked on what was supposed to be a weeks-long journey to Sri Lanka when the vessel suffered power issues. On the livestream footage of the accident, the lights on the Dali flicker off and on before and after the impact.

After losing propulsion and steering, the crew sent a mayday call to bridge authorities, dropped anchor, and then crashed into the Key Bridge at 8 knots (or roughly 9 mph), hitting a vulnerable support pillar and triggering its horrific collapse.

The cargo ship itself stayed afloat, and none of the 22 crew members were injured.

Though it’s too soon to determine any specific cause for the Dali’s loss of propulsion, incidents similar to it have occurred with alarming frequency. Just 10 days prior, a similarly large cargo ship crashed into a port in Turkey, and hundreds of incidents like it have been occurring in recent months. One of the causes of these other accidents is known as bunkering fraud, the practice of using poor-quality, even contaminated fuel when refueling cargo ships. Bunkering fraud has been blamed for hundreds of loss-of-propulsion incidents over the last year.

A Developing Situation

Maryland's governor has declared a state of emergency, and Maryland and federal agencies, such as the US Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, are on the scene to help with searches, recovery, and investigations.

News continues to trickle in, and we hope for some clear answers, but as we closely follow this case, our hearts go out to the construction workers, their families, and the communities affected by this terrible tragedy. We will post updates as they become available.

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