A giant ship. A power blackout. A scramble to stop traffic: How Baltimore bridge collapsed

by 24USATVMarch 27, 2024, 5:01 a.m. 20
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BALTIMORE − Under a nearly full moon and lightly cloudy skies, the Dali pulled away from the pier just before 12:45 a.m., aided by the sibling tugs Eric and Bridget McAllister.

Loaded with cargo containers from one of the nation's busiest ports, the ship planned to steam east across the Atlantic Ocean and past the southern tip of South Africa before entering the Indian Ocean and making port in Sri Lanka.

Facing a 28-day journey − at least a week longer than if it had used the Suez Canal and the Red Sea − the captain and crew stocked up on personal items at a Baltimore Walmart on Sunday before they left.

They were in good spirits that day, said Andrew Middleton, a nonprofit seaman's aid service director who took the men shopping Sunday. "We talked about the Red Sea," Middleton said, "and how long the trip was going to take."

Houthi rebels have been attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea, and the Dali's captain planned to take the longer route for safety. Last year the ship sailed a distance very nearly the sum of the Earth's circumference, hauling cargo to and from Asia.

Built in 2015 in Korea, the 985-foot-long ship was made to carry shipping containers, which can hold everything from televisions to SUVs. Company officials said there were 22 crew aboard the ship as it left, all of them Indian nationals.

With the Eric McAllister ahead and the Bridget McAllister astern, the Dali pulled a U-turn away from the Seagirt Marine Terminal and headed toward a pair of navigation buoys marking the channel.

Although the Dali can cruise around 22 mph, the captain, a harbor pilot and an apprentice pilot kept the speed about 9 mph as the tugs cast off their lines and returned to the port for their next assignment.

Their course would take them down the Patapsco River toward the Chesapeake Bay and then the open ocean. On its way down the river, the ship would slip beneath the Francis Scott Key Bridge. It would be a straight shot.

Contractors working above as the Dali approached

Towering hundreds of feet above the water, the Francis Scott Key Bridge had for decades been a key link in coastal travel. Opened in 1977, the bridge is named in honor of the poet who wrote the words to Star Spangled Banner. Including its approach ramps and roadways, the bridge is nearly 11 miles long. Its height meant massive container ships like the Dali could pass safely beneath.

The bridge carried about 33,000 vehicles daily, everything from commuters in their cars and SUVs to gasoline tankers and trucks hauling propane. Because hazmat trucks like gas tankers are barred from the tunnels other vehicles can use, the bridge also provided a key link for truckers in the network of roads around Baltimore.

The bridge was maintained and owned by the Maryland Transportation Authority. A federal inspection from 2021 listed it in fair overall condition.

Maryland officials say the bridge crosses the river less than 100 yards from where Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry on Sept. 12, 1814, inspiring the words to what is now the national anthem. Officials began building the $60 million bridge after the first harbor crossing, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, reached capacity.

As the Dali approached, the bridge was open but an eight-person contracting crew was repairing potholes in the decking pavement 185 feet above the water.

The hulking ship moved through the water far more slowly than it would at sea. But even at low speed, a ship nearly 1,000 feet long moves with tremendous inertia, said Capt. Allan Post, deputy superintendent at Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston.

It changes direction slowly. As its deep hull displaces water in a narrow ship channel, powerful suction forces can redirect it from below. In close quarters, a crew will keep both anchors at the ready to deploy.

But a ship that's 95,000 tons − empty − can't simply be thrown into reverse.

"A vessel traveling like that," Post said, "could be a couple miles before it comes to a full stop. It’s the scale of these vessels that people don’t quite understand."

The ship drew closer to the bridge. Then, its lights went black.

Authorities say the Dali lost power as it approached bridge

At the time of the crash, the ship had aboard about 4,700 containers, which are counted in what are known as "TEUs" or twenty-foot equivalent containers. The Dali can hold 10,000 TEUs, and an empty container by itself weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

Livestream video of the bridge at the time shows the ship's navigation and warning lights blinking out around 1:24 a.m. The ship begins turning to starboard, to the right when facing forward.

In the video, some of the ship's lights return. Heavy smoke begins billowing from the ship's exhaust stack, and then the lights blink out again.

Clay Diamond, executive director of the American Pilots’ Association, said the ship suffered a "complete loss" of propulsion. Diamond's association represents the Maryland agency that licenses its state pilots.

Those pilots are responsible for guiding ships and their crews into and out of commercial ports, each one with its own unique channels, tidal flows and navigational hazards. Each pilot serves aboard ships then trains for many additional years before taking the job. "Pilots are considered to be the most highly trained mariners in the world," he said.

The pilot asked the captain to get the engines back online, he said. "They weren’t able to do that, so the pilot took all the action he could," Diamond said. "He tried to steer, to keep the ship in the channel. He also dropped the ship’s anchor port to slow the ship and guide the direction. Neither one was enough. The ship never did regain its engine power.”

Diamond said the ship initially retained some maneuverability while it was coasting, but lost speed. He said a ship that big quickly becomes subject to wind and water movement without propulsion.

"This was a complete blackout of all the power on the ship, so that’s unusual. Of course this happened at the worst possible location," Diamond said. "There was no way to control the ship once the engine had a blackout.”

Two miles away in port, the tugboat Eric McAllister flipped a hard U-turn and began racing the two miles to catch up.

High above the water, workers saw the ship approaching. Police called for traffic to be shut down crossing the bridge.

"I need one of you guys on the south side, one of you guys on the north side, hold all traffic on the Key Bridge. There's a ship approaching that just lost their steering so until we get that under control, we've got to stop all traffic," a worker radioed to colleagues, according to the emergency-radio archiving system Broadcastify. "Just make sure no one's on the bridge right now."

“These people are heroes,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Tuesday morning. "We’re thankful that between the mayday and the collapse, we had officials who were able to begin to stop the flow of traffic so more cars were not up on the bridge."

But that radio call included one other key message.

"I'm not sure where, but there's a crew up there," the worker in the radio call said. "You might want to notify whoever foreman is, see if we can get them off the bridge temporarily."

At 1:27 a.m., the ship plowed into the bridge's southern support tower.

Jayme Krause felt the collapse. She just didn't know what it was.

At first thought she had hit something in the Amazon logistics facility where she works preparing packages for shipment, or it was an intense thunderstorm. She turned around and realized the rest of her co-workers had felt the same tremor.

With their break coming up, Krause and her colleagues ventured out to see just what had happened.

"It was a shocking sight to see, because you’ve lived your whole life here, and you’ve seen this thing your entire life, and then one day, you go outside, and it’s not there," Krause told Reuters on Tuesday during a Zoom interview from her home in Baltimore.

In a shower of sparks, the bridge fell across the Dali's bow, with other sections splashing into the channel.

"Dispatch, the whole bridge just fell down," radioed a worker, stammering. "Start − start whoever, everybody. The whole bridge just collapsed."

Unlike some other bridge designs, steel-truss bridges are prone to catastrophic failures, and officials have documented more than 500 of them in the United States alone in the past decade. The main reason: they're one continuous structure, with each segment depending on the others. Still, experts say there was no way any bridge would have survived the Dali's impact.

“You go frame by frame in the video and you can see the support removed, and then as you watch, the entire structure comes down," said Benjamin W. Schafer, a civil engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Literally the whole bridge comes down as a rigid body. If that had been a highway bridge you would have watched one concrete beam (fall), but in this case it's dramatic, like a whole pile of spaghetti."

From the Amazon facility where Jayme Krause stood at the edge of the water, she couldn't see anyone, nor hear any cries for help.

Even as the bridge was still collapsing, a swarm of rescue boats, including the two McAllister tugs, were racing to the scene. Within minutes they were joined by the Coast Guard and other vessels.

On the bridge, a group of eight workers had been repairing asphalt at the time.

Two were rescued, one unharmed and one in "very serious condition," according to Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld. And six other workers were still missing as of Tuesday evening. The Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed two of the missing were from Guatemala, and the other four were from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

"To hear the words, 'the Key Bridge has collapsed,' it’s shocking, and heartbreaking," Moore said.

Later that morning, President Joe Biden would address the country. He noted the search would be agonizing for families of the missing. “I know," he said, "every minute in that circumstance feels like a lifetime.”

The Dali's owners said there were no reports of pollution leaking from the ship.

But the search for survivors, in water that was 46 to 48 degrees, was another matter.

At 7:30 p.m., officials said, they called off the rescue effort not just for the night but for good, and switched to recovery mode.

“Based on the length of time that we’ve gone on this search, the extensive search efforts that we’ve put into it, the water temperature," Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon N. Gilreath said in a news conference, "at this point we do not believe that we’re going to find any of these individuals still alive."

What happens next to Key bridge and Baltimore port?

Aboard the Dali, the crew was safe. The ship's manager said there were no injuries. And Middleton, who took the crew shopping over the weekend, said he texted with a crew member as soon as he realized what had happened.

"My question to him was, 'Is everyone OK?' And the answer was, 'Yes sir, everyone is safe,'" Middleton told USA TODAY.

The crew was still aboard the ship while authorities assessed the situation Tuesday. Middleton said he's prepared to send them any supplies they need, if they're stuck aboard for an extended period. And he said he's making plans to help them once they're freed and returned to shore.

He said he expects the Dali will be towed back into the harbor and docked for a damage assessment. And he said he worries both about the missing workers from the bridge but also the port workers who may be temporarily unemployed if the harbor is shut down.

"The people who were on the bridge, we pray for them and their families, pray that everyone is rescued safely and alive," he said. "Obviously, this incident has a large impact on the port community. If this extends a long period of time, we're going to have longshoreman and stevedores who are not working, tugboat crews who are not working. It has the potential, if it becomes a drawn-out event, to affect many lives."

Even as rescue workers searched for survivors, Biden vowed to rebuild the bridge. Biden noted he's personally been across the bridge many times.

Still uncertain is the fate of cargo ships stuck inside the harbor, and others waiting to enter. Authorities will have to somehow remove the shattered bridge from the ocean floor to make room for deep-draft ships, although smaller ones can float above it.

Shortly after the bridge collapsed, the Port of Baltimore suspended vessel traffic “until further notice,” according to its website.

Experts say the collapse will force shippers to use other ports, potentially lengthening delivery times and raising costs.

Last year, the Port of Baltimore handled a record 847,158 cars and light trucks, more than any other U.S. port, according to Moore’s office. Overall, the port handled 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth $80 billion, making it the nation’s ninth busiest. The facility also handled 1.3 million tons of farm and construction machinery, the most of any U.S. port.

"To the people of Baltimore, I want to say: We’re with you," Biden said Tuesday afternoon. "We’re going to stay with you as long as takes. And like the governor said, you’re Maryland tough, you’re Baltimore strong, and we’re going to get through this together. And I promise: We’re not leaving."

Reuters, and Jorge Ortiz and Josh Susong of USA TODAY, contributed.

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