A section of I-695 is still draped across the bow of the Dali following a planned explosion Monday, May 13, 2024, that cut apart a section of steel truss from the Francis Scott Key bridge.

A section of I-695 is still draped across the bow of the Dali following a planned explosion Monday, May 13, 2024, that cut apart a section of steel truss from the Francis Scott Key bridge. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE — The crew and pilots aboard the massive container ship that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge weren’t under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Nor was the ship running on contaminated fuel, which some experts postulated as a cause for the 984-foot Dali losing power twice as it approached the span in the early morning of March 26.

But the revelation from federal investigators that the Dali experienced two complete power outages about 10 hours before its ill-fated departure raised new questions about how the vessel’s crew responded to the electrical failures, who was informed of the blackouts — and whether the vessel should have set sail.

While it eliminated some possible factors behind the bridge collapse, the preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board left other questions unanswered about the tragedy that killed six construction workers, took out a piece of Baltimore’s skyline and disrupted its bustling port.

Experts are divided in their interpretations of the report, but say the answers investigators dredge up could have profound implications both for understanding the tragedy and for an ongoing legal battle involving the Singaporean companies that own and operate the vessel.

“It raises red flags that they had prior power outages,” said Baltimore attorney and maritime law professor Charles L. Simmons Jr.

“The question is who was told about these issues?” added Alexander M. Giles, another Baltimore maritime attorney, in a separate interview. “And what was done to resolve these issues before the vessel left?”

In testimony Wednesday before a congressional committee, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, distinguished between the two March 25 power failures and the two on March 26 as the ship approached the Key Bridge, calling them “mechanically distinct.”

The first two took place during routine maintenance while the vessel was still docked at the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal, the preliminary report found. After those two, the crew switched to a different transformer, one that had not been used in “several months.” Homendy pointed to that change as a line of continued inquiry for investigators.

“Switching breakers is not unusual,” she said, “but may have affected operations the very next day on the accident voyage.”

The cause of the two March 26 blackouts is less clear. The preliminary report describes that electrical breakers “unexpectedly opened” when the Dali was about three ship lengths from the Key Bridge.

Power was temporarily restored, but then breakers opened again, causing a total loss of power roughly 1,000 feet from the bridge. The crew would regain electrical power, but not propulsion, before striking a bridge pier, sending the 1.6-mile span tumbling into the Patapsco River and killing the workers filling potholes on the bridge.

Thomas Roth-Roffy, a Coast Guard-licensed chief marine engineer who investigated maritime disasters for the NTSB for almost 20 years, initially thought there were no conclusions to be drawn from the distinguishable power outages. But after reviewing the report more carefully, he believes there may be an underlying cause.

“It almost seems like it’s not a problem with the individual breakers, but with the control arrangement for the power management system,” Roth-Roffy told The Baltimore Sun.

Examining the ship’s electrical system will be key moving forward, Homendy told lawmakers, noting that her investigators have been working closely with Hyundai, which manufactured the equipment and the ship, to replicate some of the problems seen March 26. Investigators said in the report they plan to continue to evaluate “the design and operation of the Dali’s power distribution system,” including its breakers.

The NTSB intends to determine “what happened with the electrical system on the accident voyage,” Homendy told the congressional committee. “What happened in those two blackouts?”

The preliminary report said in a footnote that the NTSB is “not aware” of any other power outages aboard the Dali in Baltimore or at its prior two stops in Newark, New Jersey, and Norfolk, Virginia. Federal investigators secured the Dali’s voyage data recorder, which functions like a simplified version of an airplane’s “black box,” and its hard drive, and said it contains 34 days of data.

“If this had been some sort of common occurrence, then it should’ve been a red flag,” said former merchant mariner Sal Mercogliano. “My question is: This happened the day before, what happened the day before that? Is this a common instance with this ship and this crew?”

In its report, the NTSB attributed the first of two in-port power outages to human error, saying a Dali crew member accidentally shut an exhaust line from one of the ship’s generators, causing it to stall. The second blackout resulted from a lack of fuel pressure to a different generator.

Roth-Roffy said he was surprised that the NTSB report didn’t identify which of several potential factors caused the low fuel pressure.

Michael Buckley III, chief cargo ship engineer for the shipping company Maersk Line Ltd., said he could justify leaving port after a power outage caused by human error, assuming the member of the crew who erred owned up to the mistake and his explanation checked out. Maersk Line is a U.S. subsidiary of the Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk that chartered the Dali for its cargo operations.

“The second one, on low fuel pressure, I’m going to dig really deep to make sure before we leave port that whatever caused that low fuel pressure is fixed,” Buckley said.

According to the NTSB preliminary report, a senior pilot and an apprentice pilot boarded the Dali about 12:05 a.m. March 26. The captain reported the ship was “in good working order,” the report said, and two tugboats pulled the vessel from the dock about 30 minutes later.

There’s no indication in the report that the pilot was informed of the power outages, or that the crew shared the prior day’s events with the Coast Guard.

“If they had two blackouts at the dock, the pilot should’ve been informed of that before the ship sailed because the pilot’s not going to risk his license and he’s going to call the Coast Guard,” Buckley said.

Federal law requires a vessel to report to the Coast Guard when it loses power, propulsion or steering in U.S. waters, but it’s unclear if that regulation applies when a ship is docked.

A Coast Guard spokesman said the agency was not made aware of the Dali’s power outages in port, but declined to “comment on any legal obligations or make any conclusions related to the cause of the marine casualty.”

“This information will be made publicly available at the conclusion of the investigation,” said the spokesman, Lt. Luke Pinneo, referring to a Coast Guard probe that is running in tandem with the NTSB investigation.

Ships experienced complete or partial losses of propulsion, steering or power 42 times in Maryland waters between 2021 and the middle of April, The Sun previously reported. Many of those ships appeared to report such incidents to the Coast Guard as occurring at or near berths in the Port of Baltimore. The Dali did notify the Coast Guard, through a pilots’ dispatcher, about the March 26 power outage as it approached the bridge, the NTSB report said.

Mercogliano and Buckley described the period of time when a ship is not underway as something of a “gray area.” In separate interviews, they said it’s commonplace for a ship’s engineer and crew to resolve their mechanical or electrical problems, but emphasized that it’s critical to be sure it’s fixed before departing.

“Everybody’s under pressure to move that ship — time is money,” Buckley said. “To basically — I’m not going to say lie, but if you’re pretty sure you got the problem fixed, but you’re not 100% sure, that’s a fine line. I’m not going to do that.”

That’s where legal ramifications come about. Lawrence Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham University’s School of Law, said the “multiple instances of problems with the electrical system” could serve as evidence the vessel was not seaworthy.

“Once you get away from the pier, it gets harder to fix problems,” Brennan said. “But before you leave, you have a duty to ensure that the ship is seaworthy or that you’ve exercised due diligence to ensure the seaworthiness of the ship.”

Days after the bridge collapse, Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and Synergy Marine Pte Ltd., the companies that own and manage the Dali, asked a federal judge to absolve them of liability from the crash or to limit damages to the salvage value of the ship plus the revenue it stood to make from its cargo. They estimated the sum to be $43.7 million.

The Singaporean companies moved under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, which was designed to protect the maritime industry.

To be successful, they have to prove they didn’t have “privity or knowledge” that there was something wrong with the ship before it left the berth, said Simmons, who teaches maritime law at the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland law schools and practices at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

“The NTSB’s findings that there were prior power outages, those facts are going to be relevant to whether the owner and operator had privity and knowledge about the power issues before it left the terminal, and whether the ship should have left the terminal in the first place or should’ve stayed and more thoroughly addressed the power issues they were having,” he said.

A spokesman for Synergy and Grace Ocean said the companies extend their “deepest sympathy to all those impacted by this incident,” but declined further comment, citing ongoing investigations into the bridge collapse.

©2024 Baltimore Sun.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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