A view of the Dali cargo vessel which crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge causing it to collapse in Baltimore, Maryland. Image Credit: Reuters

BALTIMORE: It was the middle of the night when a dispatcher’s warning crackled over the radio: A massive cargo ship had lost its steering capabilities and was heading toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

With a huge, runaway cargo ship bearing down on one of Baltimore harbour’s busiest bridges, local police had just 90 seconds to react to a last-ditch Mayday call from its crew.

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Stopping the drifting container ship Dali was impossible.

But officers could still try to prevent drivers from heading into what was about to become a death trap.

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“Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge. There’s a ship approaching that’s just lost their steering, so until they get that under control, we’ve got to stop all traffic,” an officer can be heard saying in police radio excerpts published by Broadcastify.

As his colleagues shut down the highway, an officer can be heard referring to nighttime repair workers already on the Francis Scott Key bridge - six of whom were declared missing by officials after the disaster.

The following map highlights the route of the Dali cargo ship in the port of Baltimore up until it strikes the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26. (AP Digital Embed) Image Credit: AP

“If there’s a crew up there you might want to notify whoever the foreman is, see if we can get them off the bridge temporarily,” the officer says.

Within about 90 seconds, police officers responded that they had managed to stop vehicle traffic over the Baltimore bridge in both directions. One said he was about to drive onto the bridge to alert a construction crew.

But it was too late. Powerless and laden with huge containers, the vessel smashed into a support pillar.

“The whole bridge just fell down. Start, start - whoever - everybody. The whole bridge just collapsed,” comes the next panicked message as the Dali slams into the structure.

Port directly generates 15,000 jobs
The Baltimore port directly generates over 15,000 jobs, with an additional 140,000 jobs dependent on port activity, according to Maryland Governor Wes Moore’s office.
The Port of Baltimore handles more automobile freight than any other US port — more than 750,000 vehicles in 2022, according to port data, as well as container and bulk cargo ranging from sugar to coal.
Tuesday’s disaster may be the worst US bridge collapse since 2007, when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis plunged into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people.
All 22 crew members on the ship, owned by Grace Ocean Pte Ltd, were accounted for, its management company, Synergy Marine Pte Ltd, reported.
Main route for motorists between New York and Washington
The Francis Scott Key Bridge was one of three ways to cross the Baltimore Harbour and handled 31,000 cars per day or 11.3 million vehicles a year.
The loss of the bridge also snarled roadways across Baltimore, forcing motorists onto two other congested harbour crossings and raising the spectre of nightmarish daily commutes and regional traffic detours for months or even years to come.
The bridge serves as the main route for motorists between New York and Washington seeking to avoid downtown Baltimore.
The steel structure is four lanes wide and sits 185 feet (56 meters) above the river.
It opened in 1977 and crosses the Patapsco River, where US national anthem author Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” in 1814 after witnessing the British defeat at the Battle of Baltimore and the British bombing of Fort McHenry.
No major US supply chain crisis seen
Still, economists and logistics experts said they doubted the port closure would unleash a major US supply chain crisis or major spike in the price of goods, due to ample capacity at rival shipping hubs along the Eastern Seaboard.
It opened in 1977.
One area of concern is higher shipment costs for imported cars and trucks and for exports of farm tractors and construction equipment as Baltimore is the largest US port for “roll-on, roll-off” vehicle shipments, with over 750,000 cars and light trucks handled by state-owned terminals in 2023, according to Maryland Port Administration data.
Ford Motor Co and General Motors said they would reroute some affected shipments but the impact would be minimal, while Volkswagen is unaffected because its new Sparrows Point vehicles terminal is located at a former steel mill site on the bridge’s Chesapeake Bay side.

Most technically challenging

Another officer radios in: “I can’t get to the other side, sir, the bridge is down.”

CCTV images tell the story - showing much of the 47-year-old span crumpling and tumbling into the water, leaving the cargo ship with its piled containers wedged beneath crumpled steel.

When the container ship Dali slammed into the pillar around 1:30am. Tuesday, it caused a long span of the bridge, a major link in the region’s transport networks, to crumple into the Patapsco River. The loss of the bridge is expected to snarl commuter traffic and disrupt a vital shipping port.

At least eight people went into the water. Two were rescued but the other six, part of a construction crew that had been filling potholes on the bridge, were missing and presumed dead.

Among the missing were people from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, according to diplomats from those countries.

Capt. Michael Burns Jr. of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy said bringing a ship into or out of ports in restricted waters with limited room to manoeuvre is “one of the most technically challenging and demanding things that we do.”

“So there really is few things that are scarier than a loss of power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a ship loses propulsion and steering, “then it’s really at the mercy of the wind and the current.”

Video showed the ship moving at what Maryland Governor Wes Moore said was about 9 mph (15 kph) toward the 1.6-mile (2.6-kilometer) bridge. Traffic was still moving across the span, and some vehicles appeared to escape with only seconds to spare. The crash caused the span to break and fall into the water within seconds, and jagged remnants were left jutting up from the water.

Police said there is no evidence anyone went into the water other than the workers, though they had not discounted the possibility.

Baltimore Mayor (centre) and other city officials pray for the victims. Image Credit: AFP

A senior executive at the company that employed the crew, Brawner Builders, said they were working in the middle of the bridge when it fell.

“This was so completely unforeseen,” said Jeffrey Pritzker, the company’s executive vice president. “We don’t know what else to say. We take such great pride in safety, and we have cones and signs and lights and barriers and flaggers.”

Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks.

“I know that a month ago, I was there, and I know what it feels like when the trailers pass,” Campos said. “Imagine knowing that is falling. It is so hard. One would not know what to do.”

Rescuers pulled two people out of the water. One person was treated at a hospital and discharged hours later.

The crash happened long before the busy morning commute on the bridge, which was used by 12 million vehicles last year.

Logistical headache

From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure.

Tuesday’s collapse is sure to create a logistical headache along the East Coast for months, if not longer, shutting down shipping traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major hub.

Paul Wiedefeld, the state’s transportation secretary, said vessel traffic in and out of the port would be suspended until further notice, though the facility was still open to trucks.

“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast,” state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling said.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it was too soon to give a time frame for clearing the channel, which is about 50 feet (15 meters) deep, while President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore soon and expects the federal government to pay the entire cost of rebuilding.

The vessel also passed foreign port state inspections in June and September 2023. In the June 2023 inspection, a faulty monitor gauge for fuel pressure was rectified before the vessel departed the port, Singapore’s port authority said in a statement Wednesday.

Donald Heinbuch, a retired chief with Baltimore’s fire department, said he was startled awake by a deep rumbling that shook his house for several seconds and “felt like an earthquake.”

He drove to the river and couldn’t believe what he saw: “The ship was there, and the bridge was in the water, like it was blown up.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called it “an unthinkable tragedy.” Gov. Moore said that “all of our hearts are broken for the victims and their families,” and he also hailed first responders for their quick response.

“Literally by being able to stop cars from coming over the bridge, these people are heroes,” Moore said. “They saved lives last night.”

20-year-old’s brush with death

Jennifer Woolf, 41, told the harrowing tale of her son’s brush with catastrophe.

After a late-night quarrel with his girlfriend, the 20-year-old hit the road. He crossed the bridge once, and then turned back to reconcile with his partner.

“He went back over the bridge a second time and as soon as he got over, (after) three minutes exactly, the bridge collapsed,” Woolf explained as she got her morning coffee.

“He came home panicking and crying, like shaking, and I started crying,” added the entrepreneur.

“He’s still awake. He hasn’t gone to sleep either... watching the news. He keeps texting me nonstop,” Woolf said, adding that she was praying “for all the families that are going through the tragedy of looking for their loved ones.”

With his breakfast, soda and cookies in hand, Baltimore resident Paul Kratsas said he had long feared that an incident like Tuesday’s bridge collapse could happen.

“Yesterday, actually, I was going to use it,” the 59-year-old Kratsas said of the bridge. “When I go over it, sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, I hope this thing don’t fall.’”

“These ships go in and out all the time,” added the man, who came to check out the scene with his wife. “And they usually bring them in with big tugboats.”

“Yeah, never seen that happen before,” Kratsas said.

then and now-1711548173648
Then and now. Image Credit: Reuters

The calamity at a landmark familiar to tens of thousands of motorists a day left residents shocked.

At a gas station convenience store in Baltimore, Patricia Sisk regularly encounters harried commuters and stressed-out parents in the early hours.

But on the morning after the bridge collapse, the 82-year-old instead found herself greeting a stream of police officers, emergency personnel and worried locals.

“It’s scary,” Sisk, sporting her uniform cap, told AFP as sirens rang out.

“I’ve seen all these police officers and they told me what happened.... I feel for the people.”

Sisk said several customers “thought it was an explosion. It was just horrible. They were scared.”

Terrorism has been ruled out by officials in the drama. But Sisk said she hadn’t had the same “creepy feeling” since the September 11, 2001 attacks in which Islamist hijackers triggered the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead.

“You know, when the towers.... and then you wonder,” she said.