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Baltimore bridge collapses after powerless cargo ship rams into support column; 6 people are missing

The operators of a cargo ship issued a mayday call moments before slamming into a Baltimore bridge, enabling authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the span

By LEA SKENE, , Associated Press,
Published: March 26, 2024, 10:40am
4 Photos
Parts of the Francis Scott Key Bridge remain after a container ship collided with one of the bridge&rsquo;s supports Tuesday, March 26, 2024 in Baltimore. The major bridge in Baltimore snapped and collapsed after a container ship rammed into it early Tuesday, and several vehicles fell into the river below. Rescuers were searching for multiple people in the water.
Parts of the Francis Scott Key Bridge remain after a container ship collided with one of the bridge’s supports Tuesday, March 26, 2024 in Baltimore. The major bridge in Baltimore snapped and collapsed after a container ship rammed into it early Tuesday, and several vehicles fell into the river below. Rescuers were searching for multiple people in the water. (WJLA via AP) Photo Gallery

BALTIMORE (AP) — A cargo ship lost power and rammed into a major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, destroying the span in a matter of seconds and plunging it into the river in a terrifying collapse that could disrupt a vital shipping port for months. Six people were missing.

The ship’s crew issued a mayday call moments before the crash took down the Francis Scott Key Bridge, enabling authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the span, Maryland’s governor said.

The ship struck one of the bridge’s supports, causing the structure to collapse like a toy. It tumbled into the water in a matter of seconds — a shocking spectacle that was captured on video and posted on social media. The vessel caught fire, and thick, black smoke billowed out of it.

With the ship barreling toward the bridge at “a very, very rapid speed,” authorities had just enough time to stop cars from coming over the bridge, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said.

A list of major US bridge collapses caused by ships and barges

A container ship struck a major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, causing it to plunge into the river below. From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collision, with a total of 342 people killed, according to a 2018 report from the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure. Eighteen of those collapses happened in the United States.

A list of notable disasters involving ships or barges hitting bridges in the U.S.:

POPP'S FERRY BRIDGE

March 20, 2009: A vessel pushing eight barges rammed into the Popp's Ferry Bridge in Biloxi, Mississippi, resulting in a 150-foot section of the bridge collapsing into the bay.

INTERSTATE 40 BRIDGE: 14 DEAD

May 26, 2002: A barge hit the Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River at Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, collapsing a 500-foot section of road and plunging vehicles into the water. Fourteen people died and 11 were injured.

QUEEN ISABELLA CAUSEWAY: 8 DEAD

Sept. 15, 2001: A tugboat and barge struck the Queen Isabella Causeway in Port Isabel, Texas, causing a midsection of the bridge to tumble 80 feet into the bay below. Eight people died after motorists drove into the hole.

EADS BRIDGE: 50 INJURED

April 14, 1998: The Anne Holly tow traveling through the St. Louis Harbor rammed into the center span of the Eads Bridge. Eight barges broke away. Three of them hit a permanently moored gambling vessel below the bridge. Fifty people suffered minor injuries.

BIG BAYOU CANOT: 47 DEAD

Sept. 22, 1993: Barges being pushed by a towboat in dense fog hit and displaced the Big Bayou Canot railroad bridge near Mobile, Alabama. Minutes later, an Amtrak train with 220 people aboard reached the displaced bridge and derailed, killing 47 people and injuring 103 people.

SEEBER BRIDGE: 1 DEAD

May 28, 1993: The towboat Chris, pushing the empty hopper barge DM3021, hit a support tier of the Judge William Seeber Bridge in New Orleans. Two spans and the two-column bent collapsed onto the barge. Two cars carrying three people fell with the four-lane bridge deck into a canal. One person died and two people were seriously injured.

SUNSHINE SKYWAY BRIDGE: 35 DEAD

May 9, 1980: The 609-foot freighter Summit Venture was navigating through the narrow, winding shipping channel of Florida’s Tampa Bay when a sudden, blinding squall knocked out the ship’s radar. The ship sheared off a support of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, dropping a 1,400-foot section of concrete roadway during the morning rush hour. Seven vehicles, including a bus with 26 aboard, fell 150 feet into the water. Thirty-five people died.

“These people are heroes,” Moore said. “They saved lives last night.”

The crash happened in the middle of the night, long before the busy morning commute on the bridge that stretches 1.6 miles (2.6 km) and was used by 12 million vehicles last year.

The six people still unaccounted for were part of a construction crew filling potholes on the bridge, said Paul Wiedefeld, the state’s transportation secretary. One of those rescued was taken to a hospital, he said.

Multiple vehicles also went into the water, although authorities did not believe anyone was inside.

“Never would you think that you would see, physically see, the Key Bridge tumble down like that. It looked like something out of an action movie,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, calling it “an unthinkable tragedy.”

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

The collapse is almost sure to create a logistical nightmare for months, if not years, along the East Coast, shutting down ship traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major shipping hub. The accident will also snarl cargo and commuter traffic.

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

Highway signs as far south as Virginia warned drivers of delays associated with the bridge.

Authorities said sonar had detected vehicles in the water, which is about 50 feet (15 meters) deep. The water temperature was about 47 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius) before dawn Tuesday, according to a buoy that collects data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Synergy Marine Group — which manages the ship, called the Dali — confirmed the vessel hit a pillar of the bridge at about 1:30 a.m. while in control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely into ports. The ship is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd.

Synergy said all crew members and the two pilots on board were accounted for, and there were no reports of any injuries.

The ship was moving at 8 knots, roughly 9 mph (14.8 kph), the governor said.

Jagged remnants of the bridge could be seen jutting up from the water’s surface. The on-ramp ended abruptly where the span once began.

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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. “It felt like an earthquake,” he said.

He drove to the river’s edge and couldn’t believe what he saw.

“The ship was there, and the bridge was in the water, like it was blown up,” he said.

The bridge spans the Patapsco River at the entrance to a busy harbor, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Opened in 1977, the bridge is named for the writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Wiedefeld said all vessel traffic into and out of the port would be suspended until further notice, though the facility was still open to trucks.

President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore “as quickly as I can” and that he intends for the federal government to pick up the entire cost of rebuilding the bridge.

“This is going to take some time,” Biden said. “The people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt.”

The FBI was on the scene and said there was no credible information to suggest terrorism.

The Dali was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and flying under a Singapore flag, according to data from Marine Traffic. The container ship is about 985 feet (300 meters) long and about 157 feet (48 meters) wide, according to the website.

Danish shipping giant Maersk said it had chartered the vessel. No Maersk crew and personnel were on board. The collapse caused Maersk share at the Nasdaq Copenhagen to plummet 2% in early Tuesday trading.

Last year, the Port of Baltimore handled a record 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth $80 billion, according to the state. In addition to cargo, more than than 444,000 passengers cruised out of the port in 2023.

The collapse is not likely to have a big effect on worldwide trade because Baltimore is not a major port for container vessels, but the port’s facilities are more important when it comes to goods such as farm equipment and autos, said Judah Levine, head of research for global freight booking platform Freightos.

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