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Key Bridge collapses after container ship slams into it, six workers presumed dead

Photo from the Baltimore City Fire Department via Facebook.

President Biden on Tuesday promised the federal government would fully pay for a replacement of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Biden, in an address less than 12 hours after the bridge was struck by a cargo ship, cited the importance of Baltimore’s port and the bridge to the local and regional economy. The collision appears to have claimed the lives of six people.

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge,” Biden said. “I expect Congress to support my effort.”

When asked if the owners of the ship that struck the bridge should pay for any of the costs, Biden replied: “We’re not going to wait for that to happen.”

The bridge, along Interstate 695 connecting Baltimore County to Anne Arundel County, opened on March 23, 1977.

The nearly 11-mile project cost $110 million to build, including $60 million for the bridge, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The cost to replace the structure is not yet known.

“This is one of the cathedrals of American infrastructure,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “It has been part of the skyline of this region for longer than many of us had been alive. The path to normalcy will not be easy. It will not be quick. It will not be inexpensive, but we will rebuild together.”

‘A tragedy you could never imagine’ 

Reports came in around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday that a large vessel crashed into a column in the central part of the bridge, catching on fire before causing multiple vehicles to fall into the Patapsco River below.

Federal and state officials said the Singapore-flagged ship Dali left the port around 1 a.m. The vessel was headed through Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, as its final destination, according to Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder maps and data.

The 985-foot ship weighs 95,000 gross tons, according to officials with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Video appears to show the ship losing power before the collision.

The strike caused most of the bridge to collapse into the Patapsco River.

“This is a unique circumstance,” said Buttigieg. “I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size.”

According to initial reports at least seven vehicles, including at least one tractor-trailer-sized vehicle, fell into the water, Baltimore City Fire spokesperson Kevin Cartwright told WTOP. Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said during a news conference shortly after 7 a.m. that road workers were also on the bridge at the time of the collision.

“This is a tragedy that you could never imagine,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said during a morning news conference. “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.”

From search and rescue to search and recovery 

The ship issued a mayday call, giving Maryland Transportation Authority police time to halt traffic on both sides of the span.

Gov. Wes Moore (D) credited the fast action of authority police, who moved quickly to close the highway in advance of the collision.

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

Moore traveled to Boston Monday night to receive an award at a ceremony scheduled for Tuesday evening. He returned to Maryland early in the morning Tuesday following news of the collision.

Despite halting vehicles from entering the bridge, officials believe multiple people, including a work crew filling potholes, were on the bridge when it was struck.

Early Tuesday evening, state officials said they remained in search and rescue mode, looking for at least six people.

Baltimore City Fire Department Chief James Wallace told reporters that at least two others were rescued from the chilly waters that lead to the port earlier in the day.

One individual refused treatment. A second was transported “to a local trauma center” and is in “very serious condition.”

Throughout the day, officials stressed the focus remained on finding and rescuing others who were on the bridge.

Changing conditions, the temperature of the water and the dangers posed to divers working in a dark underwater environment among sharp and potentially unstable debris ended those efforts.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Roland Butler Jr. said divers would be back in the water on Wednesday morning to begin recovery efforts.

“At this point, we do not know where they are,” said Butler. “But we intend to give it our best effort to help these families find closure.”

Butler said officials believe they are searching for the bodies of six people but could not rule out the potential that other vehicles were involved.

“Is there the possibility there was another vehicle in there other than those vehicles involved in the construction process? I think we all would have to understand, yes, that’s a distinct possibility,” Butler said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s maybe a distinct possibility. However, we don’t have any information to support that at this point.”

Investigation begins

A team of two dozen investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Baltimore early Tuesday.

Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said the investigation will include reviews of potential mechanical and human factors that may have contributed to the collision. Investigators will also look at the structural soundness of the bridge.

“There’s not a lot of information I can release at this time,” Homendy told reporters during an afternoon briefing.

In addition to U.S investigators, the incident will also be subject to an investigation by regulators from Singapore.

‘A protracted impact to supply chains’ 

The bridge is a major artery for commuters and commerce in the area.

Due to the collapse, all traffic is rerouted north to the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels. Some vehicles — taller trucks and vehicles transporting hazardous materials — will have to find other routes.

More than 30,000 vehicles use the bridge daily. The facility collected $56 million in tolls in fiscal year 2023.

The bridge links residents of the southeastern portion of Baltimore City with Anne Arundel and southwestern Baltimore County. Trucks moving goods from the port also use the bridge.

The bridge is an important route for the transportation of hazardous materials, which are banned from the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels.

“That is a whole other ball of wax about the impact on transportation and then, extremely importantly, the broader impact of the port and having the front door of the port locked,” said state Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City). “It is unbelievably severe for the region’s economy.”

The collapse of the bridge also hobbles cruise and cargo operations at the Port of Baltimore.

“Well, the port here in Baltimore does the most vehicle handling of any port at all,” said Buttigieg. “And that’s just talking about the vehicle side. You also have container traffic. You have bulk traffic.”

State transportation officials announced the immediate suspension of all ship traffic in and out of the port.

“There is no question that this will be a major and protracted impact to supply chains,” said Buttigieg. “It’s too soon to offer estimates on what it will take to clear the channel and reopen the port.”

An option to ease the bottleneck could be Tradepoint Atlantic. The 3,300-acre industrial site on the water in Sparrows Point, just past the bridge in Baltimore County, was once home to Bethlehem Steel. The redeveloped site is now home to a number of companies including an Amazon distribution center.

“I had conversations with folks from Tradepoint to see what they thought would be possible and they have a partially built-out port facility,” Ferguson said. “It doesn’t have the deepwater berth, but it can help with the roll on roll off cargo and some of the breakbulk cargo and they offered whatever assistance possible. I think that’s going to be probably an important short-term solution to just get commerce moving again.”

The Senate leader said the incident highlights the importance of some redundancy in the state’s port system.

“It’s important in moments like this to look for areas where we can make improvements and build back better,” Ferguson said. “Improvements to Tradepoint to have deepwater access certainly seem more important today than they did yesterday. And so, all of that is, should be on the table.”

In a statement, the company said it was prepared to assist in recovery efforts.

“Tradepoint Atlantic has been in constant contact with emergency response officials and leaders from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and the State of Maryland and will continue to coordinate during this extremely challenging situation,” the company said. “As part of the Port of Baltimore, we are committed to helping our state and local partners and the entire port community recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”

Pivotal budget debate 

The collapse comes at a pivotal moment in the debate over transportation funding for the coming year.

House and Senate fiscal leaders are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to begin work on a compromise budget for fiscal 2025.

The House version of the budget contains a proposal to bolster the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. The plan transfers $75 million annually for 10 years from the Maryland Transportation Authority to the trust fund.

Senate leaders were already skeptical of the proposal. The bridge collapse raises more concerns, Ferguson said.

“I mean, look, I think that there’s no question today’s calculus is different than yesterday’s calculus,” he said.

This breaking news has been updated.

Maryland Matters’ news partner WTOP contributed to this report.


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Key Bridge collapses after container ship slams into it, six workers presumed dead