The cargo ship Dali sits in the water after running into and collapsing the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024, in Baltimore.

The cargo ship Dali sits in the water after running into and collapsing the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024, in Baltimore. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/TNS)

BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — Everything went wrong in the exact worst way.

For decades, countless ships sailed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Each one tacitly presented a threat, but rarely in reality: The vessels steered safely through the shipping channel, bringing cars and commerce and jobs to Baltimore.

But on Tuesday morning, when an inconceivably heavy ship that reported a power outage hit a largely unprotected bridge pier, the 47-year-old bridge immediately crumbled. The crash killed six men, took down a piece of Baltimore’s skyline and indefinitely interrupted a key transportation and economic cog.

It was the perfect catastrophe.

A ship losing power is rare. A bridge being that vulnerable to collapse is rare. A ship minutes into a monthlong journey to Sri Lanka apparently losing the ability to navigate at the exact, split-second wrong moment is especially rare. One minute later or one minute earlier and the ship might have simply run aground, a harmless nuisance.

“This is a cascade of failures,” former merchant mariner Sal Mercogliano told The Baltimore Sun. “Unfortunately, this happens out in the ocean, it’s not a big deal. … But if it happens two-thirds of a mile from approach to the Key Bridge, it’s a massive problem.”

The Dali, a 984-foot vessel, had been in an accident in Belgian waters several years ago, but recently passed shipping inspections. It departed the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal in the dark of early Tuesday. Within about 30 minutes, something went horribly wrong on the ship.

A Maryland pilot, brought aboard along with an apprentice to ensure safe passage out of the harbor, issued a mayday warning just a few minutes before the ship crashed into a column of the bridge — which state officials knew, at least as early as 1980, could not withstand a direct blow from a ship. The bridge was one of only 3% in the country classified as “fracture critical,” meaning that if a certain portion of the bridge were to fail, the entirety of it would, too.

The bridge’s two essential piers, which kept it upright since it opened in 1977, sat all but naked in the Patapsco River and there is no doubt the bridge could have had stronger protection in the water. But whether or not that would have enabled it to withstand a direct strike depends on who you ask.

Doomsday came in the form of a wayward ship weighing more than 100,000 tons. The Dali destroyed a thoroughfare that carried 30,000 cars a day across Baltimore’s harbor and sent authorities scrambling to search for victims. They have found the bodies of two of the men killed, and vowed to recover the other four as they clean up the mess of mangled steel and concrete in the channel.

Officials’ priority is to reopen the pivotal port, the largest importer of cars and farm equipment in the nation, but there’s no public timeline for doing so. Comparable efforts elsewhere have taken a few months.

Rebuilding the bridge will take years — ranging anywhere from two to 15, experts estimated. That leaves plenty of time for those affected to wonder about the ship and the bridge and the crash that launched a thousand questions.

Attorney Steve Yerrid represented the pilot of the ship that knocked over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida, in 1980, a notorious accident that led to nationwide changes in bridge structure.

“You play the lottery long enough,” he said of large container ships passing vulnerable piers, “your number comes up.”

A blackout onboard

When the Dali’s lights went out before it smashed into the Key Bridge, it likely experienced a “blackout,” or complete loss of power.

Without power, a ship’s captain or pilot cannot steer or propel, nor can they utilize any of the computers that are not backed up by batteries.

“You are dead in the water,” said Michael Buckley III, chief cargo ship engineer for the shipping company Maersk Lines Ltd.

“It happens, mistakes can be made when you’re putting a generator on the line, but it’s very rare,” Buckley told The Sun. “That’s the No. 1 cardinal rule: to avoid blackouts, especially during maneuvering in and out of port.”

He and other experts enumerated a variety of mechanical and electrical failures on massive and complex vessels that could cause power loss. In the case of the Dali, they said, it is anyone’s guess at this point.

Several potential power issues are part of a probe by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation into the deadly bridge collapse and said Wednesday it had collected evidence “consistent with power outage.”

Built in 2015, the Singapore-flagged ship passed her most recent inspection in September by the Coast Guard in New York. In June, it was dinged with a deficiency during an initial inspection at the Port of San Antonio, Chile. The issue was categorized as “propulsion and auxiliary machinery,” and related to “gauges, thermometers, etc.,” according to shipping data.

Mercogliano, who reviewed the data about inspections, described the deficiency as “really minor.”

The ship appears to have passed a subsequent inspection at the South American port, and was not barred from going to sea. A spokesperson for the port in Chile said they “don´t have any information regarding the situation of Dali in San Antonio.”

On a cargo ship, a massive main engine burns fuel to spin the ship’s propeller, thrusting it forward or backwards, depending on the direction of the rotation of the propeller’s blades. The engine relies on electricity for pumps that inject fuel and circulate oil and water to keep components lubricated and cool.

Generators create the electricity that powers the ship’s computer systems. Among other functions, the computers regulate the pumps.

“A lot of electronics and shipping things are designed to protect the machinery, and so when it detects an error or a fault, it will turn everything off to protect it so you don’t have a catastrophic failure and break everything,” Mercogliano said. “The problem is there’s not a big huge red button that overrides it. You have to figure out what the underlying problem is.”

The Dali’s crew had just under five minutes from the first onboard alarm signifying a problem until the crash, according to a timeline prepared by the NTSB.

“The engineers in that ship are doing that in the dark, when the power goes off,” Mercogliano said. “You may have some emergency lighting that comes up, you have hand-held lights, but they are scrambling trying to figure it out.”

When the Dali’s power came back on temporarily, it appeared to be on course to strike the bridge. Around that time, as a last-ditch effort, the pilot called for tugboats to respond to assist, ordered the crew to lower the port anchor and issued steering commands.

Buckley points to a video of the ship that shows it issuing a plume of smoke, followed by the lights going out again, as suggesting the ship’s captain at that point tried powering the boat hard from the bow to avoid a crash. Such an action could have overloaded an electric breaker. “It was too much power for one or two generators that came back online to support the load,” he said.

He and other experts also raised the possibility of contaminated fuel as a cause of the blackout. Coast Guard spokespeople said they didn’t know if the Dali refueled in Baltimore. The NTSB said it would examine that theory, including collecting and testing a fuel sample.

The fact that marine motors are massive and vibrate violently, sometimes breaking components, makes maintenance all the more important, said Thomas Roth-Roffy, a Coast Guard licensed chief engineer who worked for 18 years as an NTSB investigator.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the cause of the blackout was the result of improper maintenance that was done on the engine, during the in-port. It kind of raises a red flag,” he said. “If I was down there investigating the accident, I would start looking very carefully at the repair work.”

In response to questions from The Sun, the Coast Guard said the Dali told it and Port of Baltimore leadership “that they would be immobilizing their engines for routine maintenance.” The ship’s stay was short, according to maritime tracking website Vessel Finder, which showed the Dali in Baltimore for a little over two days. Describing the work as “very common,” the Coast Guard said the Dali didn’t have to notify the agency, but “informed different parties just in case something happened.”

The Coast Guard said it did not know whether the Dali’s crew conducted the maintenance or brought in a local contractor to do the work, saying “that would be up to the ship and the company.”

A spokesperson for the shipping company managing the Dali declined to comment.

In response to questions from The Sun about the Dali’s maintenance work in Baltimore, the NTSB said in a statement that it was in the early, fact-gathering phase of its investigation.

“We will be gathering all relevant information that could be material to the investigation, including that on the maintenance, oversight and operation of the vessel,” the agency said.

Stopping 100,000 tons

The 35 people who died when the Tampa bridge collapsed in 1980 illustrated the “importance of protecting” a span’s anchor piers, Yerrid, the attorney, said.

That incident became a watershed moment in bridge design. When the Sunshine Skyway was rebuilt seven years later, engineers added 36 “dolphins” — cylindrical island barriers that act as bumpers for the bridge’s supports.

The Key Bridge had a sparse protective system, engineers have said. Yerrid called its piers an “Achilles’ heel.”

After the 1980 Tampa disaster, a Maryland official was asked about protecting the state’s bridges. At the time, he said he knew of no economically feasible way to design a bridge that could withstand a blow like that seen in Tampa.

“I would have to say if that ship hit the Bay Bridge or the Key Bridge — I’m talking about the main supports, a direct hit — it would knock it down,” he said, according to a Sun article from the time.

The Key Bridge did have some pier protection in place — then and now — including a few, smaller dolphins. And, over the years, measures were taken that focused on other types of safety, such as preventing people from dying by suicide or from bringing any sort of bomb onto the bridge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the piers were never retrofitted with protection as robust as that on the rebuilt Tampa bridge.

Andrezej Nowak, who chairs Auburn University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, said that although there is no indication the bridge itself was in poor shape, “the pier was not protected properly.”

“I think if it was similar to Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, it would probably prevent the failure from occurring,” he said.

Nii Attoh-Okine, who chairs the University of Maryland’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, sees it differently. The sheer force of the 984-foot ship, carrying more than 4,000 containers and traveling at 8 knots (about 9 mph), was simply too great, he said. It would have decimated 99% of bridges.

“The bridge doesn’t have any chance,” he said.

Constructing a strong protective system in a relatively tight channel can be challenging — and costly. Authorities are installing a protection system around the Delaware Memorial Bridge at cost of $93 million.

Said Nowak: “Safety is a commodity, which you buy.”

On the other hand, the cost of cleaning up Baltimore’s shipping channel is expected to be at least $50 million, while estimates for a new bridge number in the hundreds of millions.

Engineers have questioned the practicality and expense of constructing a strong enough protective system. Benjamin W. Schafer, a Johns Hopkins engineering professor, is also skeptical that any reinforcement could have withstood the direct impact of a ship the size of Dali.

“It would have had to divert the vessel away from the pier itself, before it hit the pier. Could we build a Fort Knox? It’s not economically feasible,” he said. “I remain unconvinced that we could provide a device that would perform successfully.”

On the debate regarding stronger pier protections, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, too, emphasized the size and force of the Dali.

“It’s not just as big as a building, it’s really as big as a block, 100,000 tons, all going into this pier, all at once,” he said.

Democratic Gov. Wes Moore said it’s too early in the NTSB’s investigation to “speculate as to what could have or should have prevented” the collapse.

“The thing that we know is that we are going to and will continue to focus on making sure that our infrastructure in our state is safe,” he said.

The federal government released Thursday an initial $60 million to start the cleanup of the tangled bridge superstructure, the removal of the slashed-open cargo containers and the extraction of the Dali from the heart of Baltimore’s maritime industry. The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the salvage effort.

President Joe Biden, who will visit Baltimore in the coming days, also pledged to pay for a replacement bridge. It would likely look much different than the Key Bridge, as technology has advanced over the past half-century. It could span a wider distance, allowing for more space between piers, and it would likely have “redundancy,” engineers said, preventing one incident from collapsing the entire span.

“Redundancy is like, you have a belt and suspenders,” Nowak said. “You have alternative ways to carry the load.”

©2024 Baltimore Sun.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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