A giant ship. A power blackout. A scramble to stop traffic: How Baltimore bridge collapsed

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    BALTIMORE − Under a nearly full moon and lightly cloudy skies, the Dali pulled away from the pier just before 12:45 a.m., aided by the sibling tugs Eric and Bridget McAllister.

    Loaded with cargo containers from one of the nation’s busiest ports, the ship planned to steam east across the Atlantic Ocean and past the southern tip of South Africa before entering the Indian Ocean and making port in Sri Lanka.

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    Facing a 28-day journey − at least a week longer than if it had used the Suez Canal and the Red Sea − the captain and crew stocked up on personal items at a Baltimore Walmart on Sunday before they left.
    They were in good spirits that day, said Andrew Middleton, a nonprofit seaman’s aid service director who took the men shopping Sunday. “We talked about the Red Sea,” Middleton said, “and how long the trip was going to take.”

    Houthi rebels have been attacking cargo ships in the Red Sea, and the Dali’s captain planned to take the longer route for safety. Last year the ship sailed a distance very nearly the sum of the Earth’s circumference, hauling cargo to and from Asia.

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    Built in 2015 in Korea, the 985-foot-long ship was made to carry shipping containers, which can hold everything from televisions to SUVs. Company officials said there were 22 crew aboard the ship as it left, all of them Indian nationals.
    With the Eric McAllister ahead and the Bridget McAllister astern, the Dali pulled a U-turn away from the Seagirt Marine Terminal and headed toward a pair of navigation buoys marking the channel.

    Although the Dali can cruise around 22 mph, the captain, a harbor pilot and an apprentice pilot kept the speed about 9 mph as the tugs cast off their lines and returned to the port for their next assignment.

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    Their course would take them down the Patapsco River toward the Chesapeake Bay and then the open ocean. On its way down the river, the ship would slip beneath the Francis Scott Key Bridge. It would be a straight shot.

    Maps and graphics:How the Baltimore bridge collapse unfolded

    Contractors working above as the Dali approached
    Towering hundreds of feet above the water, the Francis Scott Key Bridge had for decades been a key link in coastal travel. Opened in 1977, the bridge is named in honor of the poet who wrote the words to Star Spangled Banner. Including its approach ramps and roadways, the bridge is nearly 11 miles long. Its height meant massive container ships like the Dali could pass safely beneath.


    The bridge carried about 33,000 vehicles daily, everything from commuters in their cars and SUVs to gasoline tankers and trucks hauling propane. Because hazmat trucks like gas tankers are barred from the tunnels other vehicles can use, the bridge also provided a key link for truckers in the network of roads around Baltimore.
    The bridge was maintained and owned by the Maryland Transportation Authority. A federal inspection from 2021 listed it in fair overall condition.

    Maryland officials say the bridge crosses the river less than 100 yards from where Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry on Sept. 12, 1814, inspiring the words to what is now the national anthem. Officials began building the $60 million bridge after the first harbor crossing, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, reached capacity.

    As the Dali approached, the bridge was open but an eight-person contracting crew was repairing potholes in the decking pavement 185 feet above the water.

    The hulking ship moved through the water far more slowly than it would at sea. But even at low speed, a ship nearly 1,000 feet long moves with tremendous inertia, said Capt. Allan Post, deputy superintendent at Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston.

    It changes direction slowly. As its deep hull displaces water in a narrow ship channel, powerful suction forces can redirect it from below. In close quarters, a crew will keep both anchors at the ready to deploy.

    But a ship that’s 95,000 tons − empty − can’t simply be thrown into reverse.

    “A vessel traveling like that,” Post said, “could be a couple miles before it comes to a full stop. It’s the scale of these vessels that people don’t quite understand.”
    The ship drew closer to the bridge. Then, its lights went black.

    Authorities say the Dali lost power as it approached bridge
    At the time of the crash, the ship had aboard about 4,700 containers, which are counted in what are known as “TEUs” or twenty-foot equivalent containers. The Dali can hold 10,000 TEUs, and an empty container by itself weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

    Investigation:Baltimore bridge collapse wasn’t first major accident for giant container ship Dali

    Gross tonnage:
    Year of build:
    95,128 tons
    2015
    Type:
    Flag:
    Container ship
    Singapore
    Image
    Length:
    Beam:
    984.25 ft.
    138 ft.

    Livestream video of the bridge at the time shows the ship’s navigation and warning lights blinking out around 1:24 a.m. The ship begins turning to starboard, to the right when facing forward.

    In the video, some of the ship’s lights return. Heavy smoke begins billowing from the ship’s exhaust stack, and then the lights blink out again.

    Clay Diamond, executive director of the American Pilots’ Association, said the ship suffered a “complete loss” of propulsion. Diamond’s association represents the Maryland agency that licenses its state pilots.

    Those pilots are responsible for guiding ships and their crews into and out of commercial ports, each one with its own unique channels, tidal flows and navigational hazards. Each pilot serves aboard ships then trains for many additional years before taking the job. “Pilots are considered to be the most highly trained mariners in the world,” he said.
    The pilot asked the captain to get the engines back online, he said. “They weren’t able to do that, so the pilot took all the action he could,” Diamond said. “He tried to steer, to keep the ship in the channel. He also dropped the ship’s anchor port to slow the ship and guide the direction. Neither one was enough. The ship never did regain its engine power.”

    Diamond said the ship initially retained some maneuverability while it was coasting, but lost speed. He said a ship that big quickly becomes subject to wind and water movement without propulsion.

    “This was a complete blackout of all the power on the ship, so that’s unusual. Of course this happened at the worst possible location,” Diamond said. “There was no way to control the ship once the engine had a blackout.”

    Dali’s crew broadcast a mayday call.

    Two miles away in port, the tugboat Eric McAllister flipped a hard U-turn and began racing the two miles to catch up.

    A rush to stop traffic as ship approached bridge
    High above the water, workers saw the ship approaching. Police called for traffic to be shut down crossing the bridge.

    “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 just lost their steering so until we get that under control, we’ve got to stop all traffic,” a worker radioed to colleagues, according to the emergency-radio archiving system Broadcastify. “Just make sure no one’s on the bridge right now.”

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