‘There’s a ship approaching that’s just lost their steering’: How the ‘Dali’ crashed into the Baltimore bridge

A quick response to the mayday alert issued by the cargo ship allowed police officers to halt traffic on the Francis Scott Key and prevented more deaths. Six construction workers are presumed dead

View of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the impact of the cargo ship 'Dali' against one of its pillars in Baltimore.Nathan Howard (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

“I need one of you guys on the south side, one of you guys on the north side. Hold all traffic on the Key bridge. There’s a ship approaching that’s just lost their steering,” a police officer is heard saying. A recording of emergency services provided by Broadcastify shows how local authorities acted quickly to prevent the loss of more lives in the collapse of Baltimore’s largest bridge, the Francis Scott Key. They were responding to a mayday call (protocol establishes that it must be repeated three times, “mayday, mayday, mayday”) coming from the cargo ship Dali, flying the Singapore flag.

Two officers responded within seconds to say they were moving to halt traffic. Just a minute and a half after the initial order, an officer on the ground is heard saying: “C-13 dispatch! The whole bridge just fell down!”

“Do we know if all traffic is stopped?” the first officer asks. “I can’t get to the other side, sir, the bridge is down,” the officer replies.

On Tuesday, Maryland Governor Wes Moore praised the officers’ actions: “These people are heroes. Last night they saved lives.”

The Dali, a 984-foot cargo ship, had left the port around 1 a.m. local time to undertake a 28-day voyage to the port of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where it was scheduled to arrive on April 22 under the orders of the Danish shipping company Maersk.

The investigation is still ongoing and the ship’s black box will allow more conclusions to be drawn, but it is a known fact that the ship’s crew warned ground authorities that they lost control. The vessel’s owner, Synergy Marine Pte Ltd, subsequently informed the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) that, “just prior to the incident, the vessel had experienced momentary loss of propulsion.”

“As a result, it was unable to maintain the desired heading and collided with the Francis Scott Key bridge,” the MPA explained in a statement in which it ensures that the ship had dropped its anchors as part of emergency procedures before its impact with the bridge. It also emphasizes that the cargo ship was under pilotage at the time of the incident, that is, with one or more port pilots in command. Pilots help guide ships safely in and out of ports.

Six victims presumed dead

The ship is owned by Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd., which stated that all 22 crew members were safe, as were the two pilots.

But at the time of the accident, there were eight construction workers on the bridge, taking advantage of the light nighttime traffic to perform maintenance work on the road surface, eliminating potholes. They were workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico hired by a company named Brawner Builders. They did not receive a warning in time to evacuate the bridge.

The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry confirmed that the two Guatemalan victims are a 26-year-old man from San Luis (Petén) and another 35-year-old man from Camotán (Chiquimula). Rescuers managed to pull two people out of the water. One was unharmed and refused care. Another was taken to the University of Maryland Medical Center and released hours later. The other six remain missing. The Coast Guard announced at 7:30 p.m. that it was suspending rescue efforts, with the missing presumed dead.

“Based on the time we have been searching, the search efforts we have made and the temperature of the water, at this time we do not believe that we will find these individuals alive. So this evening at 7:30 we are suspending active search and rescue efforts,” the Coast Guard official said.

The ship was moving at a speed of about eight knots (about 9.2 mph or 15 km/h). The ship changed course at around 1:27 a.m. and headed directly toward the pillar for unclear reasons. As the ship approached the bridge, puffs of black smoke could be seen as the lights flickered on and off, another event still under investigation. The bridge pillars did not have protections to stop the impact, which occurred about a minute later.

The enormous mass collided with the pillar at 1:28 a.m. In just 30 seconds, practically the entire bridge collapsed and turned into a shapeless mass of iron. A section fell on the deck of the ship. Jayme Krause, 32, was working in a warehouse in front of the bridge when he heard the impact: “It’s shocking. You have seen it here your whole life and one day it’s no longer there.”

The last federal inspection, carried out last June, concluded that the infrastructure was in good condition. “I don't know of any bridge that has been built to withstand the direct impact of a ship of this size,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The remains of the bridge created an artificial barrier to navigation, leading to the closure of the port, the city’s economic engine. Authorities have not been able to provide an estimate of when it will reopen to maritime traffic.

An open investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is leading the investigation into the crash. At the foot of the bridge, in the improvised open-air press center established for this purpose, the president of the NTSB said on Tuesday that a team of 24 experts has been assigned to the investigation. The MPA also announced that investigators from Singapore’s Transportation Safety Investigation Bureau and the MPA itself were going to Baltimore to assist with the investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sees no indication that this was an intentional act. President Joe Biden himself has stated that everything so far indicates that this was “a terrible accident” and that there is no reason to believe that it was deliberate.

The ship was inspected by Chilean Navy personnel from the port of San Antonio, located 70 miles west of Santiago de Chile, in June 2023. The inspection detected a problem in the “propulsion and auxiliary machinery” of the ship, according to Equasis, a shipping information system. The deficiency affected gauges and thermometers and was repaired before departure. This was one of 27 inspections the vessel has undergone since its construction in 2015. The last inspection was carried out in September 2023 in New York, where no defects were found.

Between 1960 and 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, killing a total of 342 people, according to a 2018 report by the Global Water Transport Infrastructure Partnership cited by the Associated Press. Of these, 18 took place in the United States. In 2002, a barge crashed into the Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, sending vehicles plummeting into the water. A total of 14 people were killed and 11 more injured. In 2001, a tugboat and barge collided with the Queen Isabella Causeway Bridge in Port Isabel, Texas, causing a section of the bridge to fall 80 feet into the bay. Eight people died.

A high cost for insurers and reinsurers

The Dali is owned by Grace Ocean Pte. Ltd., managed by Synergy Marine Pte. Ltd. and is covered by The Britannia Steam Ship Insurance Association Ltd., or Britannia P&I Club. Protection and Indemnity (P&I) clubs are mutual insurance companies that insure and pool the civil liability of the global maritime sector.

"No doubt both marine insurers and reinsurers will be involved with this loss," declared Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, told the market intelligence service of the firm S&P Global.

The value of the bridge itself could be around $1.2 billion. It is not yet known if the insured limit on the property placement will fully cover replacement, Worters said. Chubb Ltd. is the primary insurer for the bridge, but any claims will likely be subrogated to the shipowner's insurance.

The loss will affect the International Group of P&I Associations to a greater extent, according to Worters, who said the group has significant reinsurance coverage, led by AXA XL.

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