Rescue Operation Turns to Recovery at Baltimore Bridge Collapse

March 27, 2024
Two of eight workers fixing potholes on the Francis Scott Key Bridge survived the collapse.

A massive container ship adrift at 9 mph issued a “mayday” early Tuesday as it headed toward the iconic Francis Scott Key Bridge, losing power before colliding with one of the vital support columns. Asthe 984-foot vessel struck the bridge in the middle of an otherwise calm night, it caused a din that woke people ashore and immediately toppled an essential mid-Atlantic thoroughfare into the frigid waters.

The effects were immediate and catastrophic: Authorities began searching for six construction workers who had been repairing potholes on the Interstate 695 bridge at the time of the collapse. By Tuesday evening, their employer said they were presumed dead, and the Coast Guard said it was ending rescue efforts.

Citizens and officials mourned — Mt. Olive Baptist Church of Turner Station in Dundalk hosted an interfaith prayer vigil Tuesday evening — while working to pick up the pieces from a catastrophe that reverberated up and down the East Coast, as well as around the U.S. and the world. One of three paths across Baltimore’s harbor had been destroyed and, in the same motion, a major shipping channel was obstructed by the very steel that had safely guided thousands of commuters across it the day before.

Despite promises from President Joe Biden that the federal government will pay for a new bridge, state and federal officials couldn’t say how long that would take. But it was clear the devastation, traffic detours and impact on commerce will be long-lasting.

The ship, a Singapore-flagged vessel named Dali with thousands of containers on it, departed the Port of Baltimore around 1 a.m., then quickly ran into trouble. It’s unknown what, precisely, caused the collision at 1:27 a.m., but the ship reported losing power just before it struck the bridge. The National Transportation and Safety Board is investigating the accident — which authorities said does not appear to be intentional nor an act of terrorism — but had not boarded the vessel to collect evidence, such as recorders, as of Tuesday afternoon.

It did not want to disturb the more pressing matter: search efforts led by the U.S. Coast Guard. But Tuesday night, Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath said the rescue efforts would be suspended.

“Based on the length of time that has gone on in the search, the extensive search efforts that we’ve put into it, the water temperature, at this point we do not believe we are going to find any of these individuals still alive,” Gilreath said.

Two people — one who was briefly hospitalized and another who declined a trip to a hospital — were rescued, authorities said.

Many more may have been spared: The Maryland Transportation Authority Police on the highway above the ship prevented many cars from driving on the bridge just before the collapse, likely saving lives.

Hours after the overnight collision, sunrise illuminated the chaos. A massive ship sat in the middle of the Patapsco River and strewn about were pieces of what used to be the 1.6-mile bridge that carried 12.4 million commercial and passenger vehicles in 2023.

Baltimore awoke to the tragedy: states of emergency declared by both the mayor and governor, ongoing prayers and rescue efforts for those missing, and a bridge that had disappeared from the skyline.

Tragedy on the bridge

Tuesday was a disheartening, dizzying day of updates and information as Marylanders grasped for reality and authorities pieced together what Mayor Brandon Scott called an “unthinkable tragedy.” Agencies involved ranged from local first responders to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Biden gave a White House address Tuesday afternoon, vowing that the federal government would foot the bill for a new crossing.

“I expect the Congress to support my effort. This is going to take some time, but the people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with it every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt,” Biden said.

The Coast Guard deployed four boats, as well as a helicopter, to aid in the search and used sonar and underwater drones as part of rescue efforts. In the predawn darkness, some rescue boats and emergency personnel gathered at the boat ramp in Turner Station Park, nestled in a cove on a tributary of the Patapsco.

Divers battled temperatures, tide and darkness as they searched through water, about 50 feet deep, for vehicles or missing people. The National Data Buoy Center reported water temperatures in that area to be about 49 degrees at 4 a.m. — a dangerously cold temperature.

Lt. Col. Roland Butler, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said surface ships will be on the river overnight while divers plan to continue the search Wednesday at 6 a.m.

The construction crew on the bridge worked for Brawner Builders, whose executive vice president, Jeffrey Prtizker, said in an evening interview with The Baltimore Sun that six of the company’s employees were “presumed dead.”

“It’s a terrible, terrible, unforeseen tragedy,” he said. “None of us could have imagined this could happen. We are all kind of shocked and distressed.”

The crash immediately drew comparisons to the 1980 collapse of Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway, when a 606-foot freighter collided with a support column amid a storm and destroyed the bridge, killing 35 people.

The total of those feared dead Tuesday in Baltimore might have been worse had more cars been on the bridge at the time of the crash.

“These people are heroes,” Gov. Wes Moore said of police who prevented cars from driving onto the bridge. “They saved lives last night.”

Video from the incident shows the container ship, billowing smoke, colliding with the bridge support and much of the structure quickly collapsing. Just before the crash, the ship’s lights appear to turn on and off multiple times.

A Coast Guard briefing report obtained by The Sun stated that “a harbor pilot and assistant were onboard and reported power issues, multiple alarms on the bridge, and loss of propulsion prior to the incident.” U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin told The Sun in a phone interview that indications point to the vessel losing power, causing it to lose steering.

Scott, the mayor, had given his State of the City address Monday night and was still awake at the time of the collision.

“It looked like something out of an action movie,” he said.

‘A long road ahead’

The collision blinked by in seconds. Its consequences will span years.

All vehicle traffic has been rerouted from the bridge, which is part of the Baltimore Beltway, a key traffic artery. Commuters will be funneled into the two cross-harbor tunnels. But some vehicles — like those transporting hazardous materials — can’t use the tunnels and will have to take the long way around.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Port of Baltimore was still processing trucks inside of its terminals, but vessel traffic into and out of the port was suspended, state Transportation Secretary Paul J Wiedefeld said. The Coast Guard report stated the “Patapsco River channel is fully blocked.”

Sal Mercogliano, a Campbell University professor and former merchant mariner who hosts a YouTube show on shipping, said it could take “weeks, if not months” to clear the channel of bridge debris and open a lane for ships. That will likely have grave consequences on commerce in the region.

“We know that we have a long road ahead, not just in search-and-rescue, but in the fallout from this,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said at a news conference.

Dispatchers first reported a possible vehicle in the water at the Key Bridge around 1:40 a.m., according to audio captured by Broadcastify and reviewed by The Sun. About 12 minutes later, a first responder who reached Fort Armistead Park got on the radio, relaying the unfathomable scene in front of him.

“Be advised, the entire bridge — the entire Key Bridge — is in the harbor,” the person said. “The entire Key Bridge has fallen into the harbor.”

Priscilla Thompson, who lives on the water in Dundalk facing the Key Bridge, was awakened in the middle of the night by the horrible sound of crashing steel.

“I really thought it was an earthquake or something because it shook this house so bad,” she said. “It shook it — it really rattled it — for four or five seconds.”

“And then, it got real quiet,” she said.

Jesus Campos is an employee of Brawner Builders, the company with a crew on the bridge when it collapsed. He used to work on the bridge team, but was recently switched to a different shift.

“I could have been there like my co-workers,” he said in Spanish through a translator.

Investigating a disaster

Those who have seen video of the crash can see that something went awry. The ship appears to lose power, it emits smoke, it crashes. But what exactly went wrong will take time to investigate.

Before ships leave the dock, they typically undergo a series of tests to ensure they are seaworthy. When asked whether Dali had any major deficiencies before taking off, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said “it’s much too early” to tell.

“That is part of our investigation — where we look, in-depth, at safety information,” she said.

The ship was under the operation of a local pilot, as is required by Maryland law, to guide it through the port. The pilot will undergo drug and alcohol testing as part of the investigation.

But, unlike the Ever Forward incident in 2022 — in which a pilot distracted by his cellphone contributed to the grounding of a container ship in the Chesapeake Bay — the incident appears to be one caused by mechanical, not human error, said Mercogliano, the former merchant mariner. Without power, the pilot and crew would have been unable to navigate, he said.

“When the power goes out — the worst feeling you can have on a ship as a sailor is everything gets quiet,” Mercogliano told The Sun. “That’s the worst. Because that’s the clear sign that everything is about to go wrong.”

All of the ship’s 22 Indian crew members and the two pilots aboard have been “accounted for and there are no reports of any injuries,” according to a statement from Dali’s owners and managers.

According to maritime tracking websites Vessel Finder and MarineTraffic, Dali was built in 2015 and had arrived in Baltimore from Norfolk, Virginia. It left the Port of Baltimore around 1 a.m., about a half-hour before the collision.

Dali previously collided with a platform, known as a quay, while leaving the Port of Antwerp in Belgium in July 2016, according to VesselFinder. That caused significant damage to its hull, and it was docked for repairs before returning to duty.

A database of shipping inspections by authorities across the globe indicated that Dali’s most recent inspection, by the Coast Guard in September, reported no deficiencies, according to the data compiled by Equasis, a maritime safety website. The inspection before that was conducted June 27 at the port of San Antonio in Chile and found one deficiency related to “propulsion and auxiliary machinery” such as “gauges, thermometers, etc.” according to Equasis.

As for the bridge itself, which opened in 1977 after five years of construction, Federal Highway Administration records indicate the bridge had been considered in “good” or “fair” condition going back at least three decades. A 2023 Maryland Transportation Authority inspection found the bridge to be in “overall satisfactory condition.”

Moore said the bridge was “fully up to code” and Benjamin W. Schafer, a Johns Hopkins professor of structural and civil engineering who reviewed video of the incident, said he didn’t see anything that immediately stood out as a “red flag” in regard to the bridge’s structural integrity. He called the collapse “more of an acute event.”

The bridge had two supports holding it up; if you take one away, “it’s not a bridge anymore,” he told The Sun.

A landmark, all but vanished

For residents long accustomed to the Key Bridge, named for the Marylander who wrote the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” on the horizon, it was difficult to vocalize their shock.

Thompson, whose backyard looked out onto the bridge, teared up as she gazed at the wreckage as the sun rose. A treasured landmark had all but vanished, likely taking lives with it.

Nearby, Ralph Richards, of Dundalk, reminisced on watching the bridge’s construction as a child living near the waterfront. In disbelief, the 60-year-old studied the place where the bridge once stood.

“To see a blank spot? It reaches in and rips something out,” he said.

This article will be updated. Baltimore Sun Media staff Jeff Barker, Darcy Costello, Michelle Deal-Zimmerman, Hannah Gaskill, Sam Janesch, Natalie Jones, Lorraine Mirabella, Emily Opilo, Jonathan M. Pitts, Angela Roberts, Dillon Mullan and Lia Russell contributed to this article.

©2024 Baltimore Sun. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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