Making Sense of the Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse

Francis Scott Key Bridge CollapseMere hours after Mayor Scott’s hopeful message for the future of Baltimore – his last State of the City speech before elections this November – a container ship called the Dali left the Port of Baltimore. Minutes into its trip, the ship hit a support on the bridge. Seconds later, the bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River.

Like many folks, we woke up to the story of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. We, too, are horrified by what happened, and we are praying that search and rescue efforts are successful. Our hearts go out to everyone involved.

What happened to the FSK Bridge?

While the official investigation is ongoing (and likely to take months if not years to conclude), the initial assessment is mechanical failure by the ship, called the Dali. Sky News, which broke down the CCTV footage and tracking data, shows the vessel losing power (twice) and belching black smoke before it hits the support.

The Washington Post Reports:

An official from Grace Ocean told global shipping news site TradeWinds that the vessel was under the bridge at the time and that the company is “working with the ship’s technical manager Synergy Marine to determine what happened.”

“Whilst the exact cause of the incident is yet to be determined, the Dali has now mobilized its qualified individual incident response service,” Synergy Marine Group said in a statement to Reuters, adding that all crew members, including the two pilots who were aboard, have been accounted for and that there are no reports of any injuries among the crew.

About the bridge

The Key Bridge took five years to build and finally opened in 1977. (It was the final piece of the Baltimore Beltway.) It was the third largest continuous truss bridge in the world. Truss designs were popular in the 1800s because they required fewer materials, and significantly less metal, than other types of bridges. Even modern trusses which use more metal still require fewer materials to build.

The structure of a truss means nothing is redundant: every piece works to support the others. But when one support beam sustains substantial damage, it can take down an entire section – or an entire bridge. That is why the hit from the Dali was able to cause the entire Key Bridge to collapse.

About the ship

The Dali is a cargo ship owned by Grace Ocean Pte Ltd. and managed by Synergy Marine Group, both based in Singapore. The ship was chartered by the Danish company Maersk for a trip to Sir Lanka.

It’s also massive: 984 feet long and 157 feet wide, with a “gross tonnage of 95,000 tonnes.” By container ship standards, it is average sized. But the sheer weight of the ship means that any loss of power would make it virtually impossible to stop or steer. CNN reports that the crew did warn the local authorities of a power issue on board.

How many people were injured?

We don’t know. Search and rescue is ongoing, and the Washington Post reports there were “three passenger vehicles, a cement truck and one unknown vehicle” on the bed of the Patapsco River. CNN reports that about 35,000 people use that bridge every day, but the early hour likely reduced the risk of multiple people being on the bridge. Because the Dali crew was able to send out that “mayday” call, local officials were able to stop cars from entering the bridge. That likely saved lives, too.

Per CNN, “Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said eight people were on the Key Bridge at the time of its collapse. Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Wiedefeld said two of those people are accounted for — one is in hospital, one is okay, and the search is continuing for the other six” (emphasis ours). All eight of these people were working on the bridge at the time; they were repairing potholes.

Were there structural problems with the Key Bridge?

According to Governor Wes Moore, the bridge was up to code. It also had “dolphins” – protective objects placed in the water to protect the support beams – though the angle of the collision may have rendered the structures moot.

What happens now?

We assume that the bridge will eventually be rebuilt; until then, commuters and travelers will need to use alternate routes across the city.

The next few weeks, let alone hours, will be challenging. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the federal agency in charge of investigating transportation accidents, and they are already on the scene.

What the NTSB is looking for in its FSK Bridge investigation

The NTSB is looking for cause. The FSK was up to code, but was it structurally sound? If not, where were the critical failures? And who was supposed to oversee finding and addressing those possible failures? If there were structural issues with the bridge, it is likely that the responsibility will fall on the Maryland Department of Transportation.

However, it appears that the ship itself was experiencing mechanical failure, and the NTSB will examine that, too. The Washington Post reports that the ship was traveling at about eight knots, or about nine miles per hour. That may not seem fast on land, but it’s incredibly fast for a ship trying to leave port. There was a local pilot on the ship, too, as Maryland law requires it. As such, the NTSB will likely investigate:

  • What the pilots and crew were doing before, during, and after the ship left port.
  • The cause of the black smoke.
  • Any history of problems with the ship.
  • Why the ship was traveling so fast so early in the trip.
  • When the exact loss of power occurred.
  • Why the ship suddenly changed course.

What about the people who were hurt or killed in the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse?

These initial moments after a tragedy are often surreal for victims and families. We see it all the time: even after the physical signs of shock pass, the mental stress and anguish can leave people feeling “fuzzy.” It can take time to adjust to their new reality.

The primary concern after any tragedy like this should be medical care. Whether you sustained an obvious injury or not, you really need to seek medical advice and treatment. Even if you did not sustain a physical injury but were involved or affected by the bridge collapse in Baltimore, you should consider speaking with a counselor or therapist. Psychological care is just as important as physical care.

Unfortunately, this also starts the waiting game. While we always recommend that injury victims seek legal counsel quickly, the process will not move quickly. Federal agencies take a lot of time to investigate, and a civil case likely won’t move forward until that investigation is complete. (You should still file your injury claim quickly, however; the statute of limitations may be shorter in cases like these.) And unlike a boat accident claim on, say, a local lake or river, this collision may be handled in federal courts.

All of us at Plaxen Adler Muncy, P.A. are keeping a close watch on this story. We’re also keeping the victims and their families in our thoughts. We hope the NTSB can finish its investigation quickly and provide some definitive answers for the Baltimore community. Please call or contact us if you have any questions.