‘Mayday’ Call from Ship Stopped Baltimore Bridge Traffic, Saved Lives

Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post
Top: The scene where a container ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.
Bottom: The partially collapsed bridge after the accident.

As a cargo ship the size of a skyscraper drifted dangerously close to a major Baltimore bridge that carried more than 30,000 cars a day, the crew of the Dali issued an urgent “mayday,” hoping to avert disaster Tuesday.

First responders sprang into action, shutting down most traffic on the four-lane Francis Scott Key Bridge just before the 95,000 gross-ton vessel plowed into a bridge piling at about 1:30 a.m., causing multiple sections of the span to bow and snap in a harrowing scene captured on video.

“C13 dispatch, the whole bridge just fell down!” someone shouted on an emergency channel.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) hailed those who carried out the quick work as “heroes” and said they saved lives, but the scale of the destruction was catastrophic and will probably have far-reaching impacts for the economy and travel on the East Coast for months to come.

Much of the 1.6-mile bridge fell, sending at least eight construction workers repairing potholes into the 48-degree waters of the Patapsco River. Two were rescued, including one who was seriously injured. Authorities announced Tuesday night that six were presumed dead and suspended the search. Authorities planned to resume the hunt for the victims at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

The collapse halted shipping at the Port of Baltimore – one of the nation’s largest – and severed a crucial portion of Baltimore’s Beltway, which is also a major artery in the busy corridor between Washington and New York.

President Biden pledged that the federal government would foot the bill for the repairs and work quickly.

The impact led to a scene of utter destruction – mangled bridge trusses, shipping containers split open like tin cans and the cargo ship wedged under fallen debris. Officials turned to Hollywood to register the magnitude of what happened.

“This is a tragedy you can never imagine,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) said at an early-morning news conference. “Never would you think that you would see … the Key Bridge literally tumble down like that. It looked like something out of an action movie.”

Video showed a crumpled piece of the 47-year-old bridge draped across the bow of the ship, which was laden with shipping containers and had a large gash across its hull. Helicopters buzzed overhead, and boats with emergency lights flashing searched the waters. Divers plunged into the river, which is about 50 feet deep.

Moore said a preliminary investigation indicated that the wreck was an accident. The governor said the Dali had lost power and propulsion shortly before striking the bridge. In video, the Dali’s lights could be seen turning off and on before the crash, and the ship appeared to be drifting.

Other state and federal officials said there was no indication of terrorism or intentional sabotage. Moore and Scott declared states of emergency, and the National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the scene. They said they hoped to recover voice and data recorders on the vessel.

Biden said in an address to the nation that he was pledging all resources necessary to rebuild the bridge and reopen the Port of Baltimore, where Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stood with Maryland leaders and vowed to address any supply chain impacts caused by the closure. Biden said he would soon visit, too.

“I’m directing my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said.

Officials said it was too soon to say when either of those things might happen, or how much they could cost.

Marquis Neal, 48, who lives in the Turner Station community near the bridge, said the crash jolted him awake.

“It sounded like a huge bomb,” Neal said. “The house was shaking. The wind – there was a huge gush. Then it just stopped. I thought, is it an earthquake? Then not only five minutes later, all you heard was sirens. Everything was going crazy.”

Neal, who said he used the bridge several times a day, said it is a lifeline for this small, isolated community, whose residents almost exclusively worked at Bethlehem Steel in nearby Sparrows Point before that industry came to an end.

“We’re on that bridge every day,” Neal said. “That could’ve been you. It could’ve been anybody.”

Jesus Campos, who works for Brawner Builders, based in Cockeysville, Md., was anxiously awaiting word about the fate of six of colleagues who had plunged into the Patapsco. He paced back and forth at a meetup spot at a Royal Farms parking lot.

Campos said he was not working Monday night but was rustled out of bed around 5 a.m. by a colleague, who told him about the tragedy. Campos, who speaks only Spanish, said the workers had been on a meal break, sitting in or near their vehicles, when the bridge collapsed. He said all six of the missing men were Latino.

“I’m very sad right now,” Campos said in Spanish. “These are my co-workers and friends.”

Campos said working on the bridge is harrowing. Construction crews are constantly worried about speeding motorists, and the bridge “moves a lot” because of its design and engineering. Even so, Campos said he never could have imagined that the structure would collapse.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said that the construction workers were employed by Brawner but that the company might also subcontract work. Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president at Brawner Builders, said in a brief telephone interview that the bridge collapse was “a totally unforeseen event which no one could have predicted.” He said the company had seven employees working on the bridge overnight; one of them survived and six were still missing, he said. Authorities have described eight victims as “workers.”

“The company is upset, families are distressed, this is a terrible tragedy,” Pritzker said. “I don’t know what more I can say.”

Baltimore Fire Chief James Wallace said in an interview on CNN on Tuesday that sonar showed five vehicles on the bed of the Patapsco River, including three passenger vehicles, a cement truck and one unknown vehicle. Other officials said later in the day that they were still trying to determine whether vehicles plunged into the water, and they did not have clear details on whether any people other than those working on the bridge might have been in those vehicles.

The Singapore-flagged Dali left the Port of Baltimore around 1 a.m. and was bound for Colombo, Sri Lanka, where it was scheduled to arrive on April 22, according to MarineTraffic, a marine data platform.

Clay Diamond, the executive director of the American Pilots’ Association, said the ship experienced a “full blackout” around 1:20 a.m., meaning it lost both engine power and electrical power to its control and communications systems.

When the Dali lost power, the pilot guiding the ship out of the Port of Baltimore ordered its rudder turned hard to the left and its left anchor dropped in an effort to slow the vessel and stop it from swinging to the right, Diamond said.

The ship never regained engine power, but a diesel backup generator kicked in, restoring the electrical systems. Unable to slow the ship, Diamond said, the pilot, who had more than a decade of experience, radioed an emergency message to have the bridge closed.

Around 1:24 a.m., security video showed lights on the Dali switching off, possibly indicating the power problem. A minute later they flicked back on. Seconds later, thick black smoke could be seen pouring from a smokestack, and then the Dali appeared to begin turning to the right.

At 1:27 a.m., the lights on the Dali winked off again, before coming back on seconds later, video shows. Shortly after, radio traffic indicated efforts to evacuate the Key Bridge. The Dali struck the bridge at 1:28 a.m.

Moore said the vessel was traveling about eight knots – or nine miles an hour – when it hit the span. Diamond said the pilot on board had given a statement to investigators from the Coast Guard and the NTSB.

Synergy Marine Group, which owned and managed the ship, said in a news release that the Dali was under the control of two harbor pilots at the time of the wreck, as required under Maryland law. Synergy said all 22 sailors, who were Indian nationals, were uninjured. Authorities said they remained on the ship Tuesday.

Wallace said rescue crews on the scene had smelled diesel fuel, but Synergy said there was no evidence the wreck had polluted the river. The company said it was cooperating with authorities investigating the disaster.

Inspection records indicate that the Dali had previously had problems. A deficiency in the Dali’s systems was discovered when the ship was inspected in June last year, records show. Inspectors at the port of San Antonio, Chile, discovered a problem categorized as relating to “Propulsion and auxiliary machinery,” according to an intergovernmental shipping regulator in the Asia-Pacific region.

The problem was not serious enough to warrant detaining the ship, according to the records. After a follow-up inspection was carried out later the same day, the Dali was found to have no outstanding deficiencies, the records show, indicating that the problem was addressed.

Synergy was involved in at least three seafaring tragedies since 2018 that led to the deaths of crew members, according to investigation records from transportation safety agencies and government statements.

The incidents involved an elevator malfunction that killed a technician in 2018; an officer who fell overboard and died in 2019, who was not wearing a flotation device; and a tanker partly managed by Synergy that collided with a dredger, killing two seafarers.

Synergy, based in Singapore, controls a fleet of nearly 400 vessels and employs more than 14,000 sailors, according to its website. Its office in Singapore was dark when a Washington Post reporter visited Tuesday evening local time.

Moore said the Key Bridge was up to code at the time of the collapse. The span is a major part of I-695, carrying traffic north-south around Baltimore and connecting Baltimore to Dundalk, Md. Maryland transportation officials said the loss of the bridge could cause transportation issues in the area for the foreseeable future.

The $60 million bridge was hailed as an engineering marvel at the time it was built in the 1970s. The American Society of Civil Engineers called it one of the largest continuous truss bridges in the United States.

Ian Firth, a British structural engineer and bridge designer, noted that the bridge was erected at a time when ships were not as big as they are now and the flow of traffic was not as busy. These days, structures are designed with better protective measures in place, he said, though he noted that even a brand-new bridge would have “come down in the same way” if it were hit by such a large vessel traveling at speed.

Dan Frangopol, a bridge engineering and risk professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who is president of the International Association for Bridge Maintenance and Safety, said the catastrophic failure was not surprising.

“If the pier was destroyed like it was, the bridge has to collapse,” Frangopol said. “It’s not possible to redistribute the loads.”

Jonathan Newton for The Washington Post
Media at the bridge following the accident.