Crews conduct a controlled demolition of a section of the Francis Scott Key Bridge resting on the Dali container ship in Baltimore on May 13, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The crew of cargo ship Dali — 20 Indians and a Sri Lankan — that crashed into the Francis Scott Key US Bridge on March 26 is still on board below deck in the massive ship’s hull.

US crews in Baltimore set off controlled explosions on Monday to allow them to remove a portion of the bridge from the bow of the Dali. This will allow salvage crews to haul away the twisted metal wreckage using cranes and barges, the US Army Corps of Engineers said.

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The 21 members of the ship’s crew – who have not left the ship in the seven weeks since it struck the bridge – remained onboard during the operation, according to Darrel Wilson, a spokesperson for Synergy Marine Group, which manages the Dali. The crew members “are all safe and standing by to continue assisting the response,” Wilson said.

The crew has been unable to disembark because of visa restrictions, a lack of required shore passes and parallel ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FBI.

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The simultaneous blasts sent pieces of Baltimore’s once iconic Francis Scott Key Bridge into the dark waters of Maryland’s Patapsco River after its collapse left six people on the bridge dead and the Dali marooned.

Authorities — and the crew — hope that the demolition will mark the beginning of the end of a long process that has left the 21 men on board cut off from the world, thousands of kilometres from their homes.

But for now, it remains unclear when they will be able to return home.

The Dali — a 948ft (289m) container ship — was at the start of a 27-day journey from Baltimore to Sri Lanka when it struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, sending thousands of tonnes of steel and cement into the Patapsco. It left the ship stranded under a massive expanse of shredded metal.

While engineers tackle the logistics of clearing a tangled mess of metal to free the Dali, members of Baltimore’s seafaring community remain concerned for the crew’s well-being given the length of time they’ve been aboard the ship, according to the BBC.

‘A sad situation’

Among those who have been in touch with the crew is Joshua Messick, executive director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center, a non-profit organisation that works to protect the rights of mariners.

According to Messick, the crew has been left largely without communication with the outside world for “a couple of weeks” after their mobile phones were confiscated by the FBI as part of the investigation.

“They can’t do any online banking. They can’t pay their bills at home. They don’t have any of their data or anyone’s contact information, so they’re really isolated right now,” Messick told BBC.

Ship lost power twice before striking Baltimore bridge: Probe
The container ship that collided with a major bridge in Baltimore, collapsing it within seconds, suffered two electricity blackouts in the moments before the disaster, a preliminary report by federal investigators released Tuesday said.
The Singapore-flagged Dali also lost power during maintenance twice on the previous day, though the report by the National Transportation Safety Board said it was still probing what impact that may have had.
It had been clear that the ship had lost power in the seconds before the stunning collapse.
But the report is the first detailed examination of the events leading up to the disaster, which killed six construction workers who were making repairs on the bridge, and blocked the busy Port of Baltimore, a key US hub.
In a timeline of the accident, it said the Dali was just 0.6 miles from the bridge when the electrical breakers that fed most of the ship’s equipment and lighting unexpectedly tripped, causing the first blackout.
The ship lost propulsion and steering and began to drift off course. The crew managed to restore power briefly, but with the Dali just 0.2 miles from the bridge the lights went out again.
An emergency generator gave the crew some steering and they made a hard turn to port - but without propulsion, the bridge’s fate was sealed.
The report also detailed two blackouts about ten hours before leaving Baltimore.
“The first in-port blackout was caused by the mechanical blocking of the online generator’s exhaust gas stack. The second blackout in port was related to insufficient fuel pressure for the online generator,” it said.
It also said the crew had been tested multiple times, before and after the disaster, for drugs and alcohol, and that none had showed. -- AFP

“They just can’t reach out to the folks they need to, or even look at pictures of their children before they go to sleep. It’s really a sad situation.”

The plight of the sailors also attracted the attention of the two unions representing them, the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union and the Singapore Organisation of Seamen.

In a joint statement on May 11, the unions said that “morale has understandably dipped”, driven by “unfounded fear of personal criminal liability” and emotional distress.

The statement also called for the “swift return” of the crews’ phones, noting that losing communication with family members is “causing significant hardship for crew members with young children at home.”

Temporary phones

“We call on the authorities to be mindful that seafarers utilise mobile devices to conduct personal business for bill payments, and, more important, transfer money to their home country to sustain families,” he said. “Crew members are becoming demoralised without the basic tools we all take for granted.”

Andrew Middleton, who runs Apostleship of Sea — a programme that ministers to ships coming through Baltimore — told the BBC he visited the sailors two weeks ago and found them in “good spirits” despite constant worries.

“Once we broke the ice and got everyone to say their name and what part of India they were from, and talk about if they were married or had children, we got the ball rolling,” he said.

“They were willing to kind of poke fun at one another a little bit.... we did our best to get them laughing and joking, hopefully to take their mind off things for even a few minutes.”

For the time being, the crew has been given SIM cards and temporary mobile phones without data included, according to Messick.

They also received care packages from various community groups and private individuals, which in recent weeks have included batches of Indian snacks and handmade quilts.

According to the unions, their representatives were aboard the Dali in April to ensure the crew’s well-being. They are requesting the crew’s visas be extended or renewed to allow for shore leave. The unions are also requesting expedited repatriation for crew members not required for further investigation and the return of their electronics.

“However long the investigation takes, the crew’s rights and welfare should not be infringed upon during its course,” said Dave Heindel, president of the Seafarers International Union.

Ahead of the controlled demolition, US Coast Guard Admiral Shannon Gilreath said that the crew would remain below deck with a fire crew at the ready.

“They’re part of the ship. They are necessary to keep the ship staffed and operational,” Adm Gilreath said. “They’re the best responders on board the ship themselves.”

While the ship is likely to be re-floated this week, it remains unclear when it will be able to make the 2 nautical mile (3.7km) journey to port.