United States: Behind Baltimore’s bridge disaster

April 17, 2024
damage from a container ship collision with a bridge
Damage resulting from the collision and collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers (nab.usace.army.mil)

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, collapsed after it was hit by a massive container ship on March 26, killing six maintenance workers.

The ship lost all power just before the collision and, according to Work-Bites, was leaving the port without a tug boat escort.

Eight workers — part of a non-unionised paving crew — were repairing potholes on the bridge at the time. The men who died had migrated to the US from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Dali issued a May Day call moments before colliding with one of the bridge’s supports at 8 knots (15km/h). The entire bridge span collapsed within seconds.

Divers recovered the bodies of two workers, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera inside a submerged pick-up truck. The other four are presumed dead. They were working in the middle of the span when it collapsed.

The ship underwent “routine engine maintenance” in the port before it lost power, reported the Associated Press.

“An inspection of the Dali last June at a port in Chile identified a problem with the ship’s ‘propulsion and auxiliary machinery’, according to Equasis, a shipping information system”, however a US Coast Guard inspection in New York in September “didn’t identify any deficiencies, according to the Equasis data”.

Federal inspectors rated the 47-year-old bridge in fair condition last June, reported the AP. “But the structure did not appear to have pier protection to withstand the crash”, according to experts.

Federal and state investigators said the crash appears to have been an accident, despite some media and politicians raising the possibility of terrorism early on.

Corporate greed

It will take months to fully reopen the port. Baltimore is the ninth busiest port in the country. More than 50 shipping companies — including cruise ship lines — do business with the port and 1800 vessels visit the port each year. Jobs and millions of dollars are being lost.

How could this disaster happen?

Had the Dali had lost power in the open sea, or had enough skilled personnel — even under manual control — things could have turned out differently.

The collision certainly indicates that more precautions should have been taken by an industry known for cutting corners to maximise profits.

In the US, unique maritime laws limit shipping companies’ liability, which allows insurance companies to legally avoid massive payouts when sued.

The Dali’s owner, Grace Ocean Private Ltd and its manager, Synergy Marine Pty Ltd — both based in Singapore — have jointly filed a court petition to limit their legal liability from the collision to about $43.6 million, based on the value of the vessel’s remains.

Maryland’s federal court will ultimately decide who is at fault and how much they are liable for.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, of the more than 617,000 bridges across the country, 42% are at least 50 years old and 46,154 (7.5%) are considered structurally deficient.

A 2023 American Road and Transportation Building Association report said that one in three bridges across the country need repair or replacement.

Most bridges were built around the world prior to the 1980s. And recent ones cannot manage a collision with modern container ships.

As reported by the New York Times, the Dali was almost 300 metres long by 48 metres wide. In the 1970s, the average container ships were about 215m x 20m.

However, “Dali’s size was not necessarily a factor in the accident,” wrote the NYT, “and investigations continue” into the cause of the collision.

Safety concerns

Roland “Rex” Rexha, secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association told Work-Bites the Dali disaster “highlights the downside of not having ships escorted by tug boats until they are out on the open sea away from critical infrastructure” and “the risks created with building larger and larger vessels while using automation as justification for reducing crew size”. He also pointed to “the wide variance between US maritime safety standards and the rest of the world”.

Rexha added that changes of policy meant decisions about whether or not to have a tug boat assist when vessels go under a bridge are now in the hands of the individual port and “what they deem is the safest way to operate”.

“I think in all ports there’s going to be a revisiting of how we operate and what’s the safest way to move vessels out into safe water.”

As cargo ships have gotten bigger and technology advanced, Rexha pointed out, companies have moved to so-called “minimum crewing”, effectively halving the number of officers in each department on a vessel.

“At that point, everything becomes more difficult when there is an issue, which is most likely going to happen when you are trying to maneuver the ship. That’s the most dangerous part of any transit for any ship. That’s when there’s the potential hazard [and] … the potential for a real tragedy.”

It is possible to regain control of a ship that has lost power through switching to manual control. But to do so, explained Rexha, you need sufficient crew strength.

“But you can’t do that with just two people, especially if you are running around to try and get the lights back on.”

Regarding the fate of the maintenance workers, Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland State & DC AFL-CIO, told Work-Bites: “They shut down the bridge so that some people did not get on who would have died in the collapse. What warning did the workers get? It’s opened all of our eyes to how quickly this can happen. In a manner of seconds that whole bridge came down.”

Patrick Moran, president of Maryland public sector union AFSCME Council 3 said the tragedy has prompted questions about maritime and construction sector occupational safety.

“Very little of the state work [like the bridge paving] that’s contracted out is union — it’s been a problem for the last decade or more.”

George Escobar chief of programs with Casa, a national non-profit that advocates for migrant rights told MSNBC that migrant workers are at the forefront of keeping the country going, while being “disproportionately impacted” by failed investment in infrastructure, healthcare and housing.

One thing is clear: ship disasters and bridge collapses will happen again so long as the profit motive drives corporate and government policy makers.

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