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'A cascade of failures' contributed to rare, catastrophic Key Bridge collapse

Hayes Gardner and Alex Mann, Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE — Everything went wrong in the exact worst way.

For decades, countless ships sailed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Each one tacitly presented a threat, but rarely in reality: The vessels steered safely through the shipping channel, bringing cars and commerce and jobs to Baltimore.

But on Tuesday morning, when an inconceivably heavy ship that reported a power outage hit a largely unprotected bridge pier, the 47-year-old bridge immediately crumbled. The crash killed six men, took down a piece of Baltimore’s skyline and indefinitely interrupted a key transportation and economic cog.

It was the perfect catastrophe.

A ship losing power is rare. A bridge being that vulnerable to collapse is rare. A ship minutes into a monthlong journey to Sri Lanka apparently losing the ability to navigate at the exact, split-second wrong moment is especially rare. One minute later or one minute earlier and the ship might have simply run aground, a harmless nuisance.

“This is a cascade of failures,” former merchant mariner Sal Mercogliano told The Baltimore Sun. “Unfortunately, this happens out in the ocean, it’s not a big deal. … But if it happens two-thirds of a mile from approach to the Key Bridge, it’s a massive problem.”

 

The Dali, a 984-foot vessel, had been in an accident in Belgian waters several years ago, but recently passed shipping inspections. It departed the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal in the dark of early Tuesday. Within about 30 minutes, something went horribly wrong on the ship.

A Maryland pilot, brought aboard along with an apprentice to ensure safe passage out of the harbor, issued a mayday warning just a few minutes before the ship crashed into a column of the bridge — which state officials knew, at least as early as 1980, could not withstand a direct blow from a ship. The bridge was one of only 3% in the country classified as “fracture critical,” meaning that if a certain portion of the bridge were to fail, the entirety of it would, too.

The bridge’s two essential piers, which kept it upright since it opened in 1977, sat all but naked in the Patapsco River and there is no doubt the bridge could have had stronger protection in the water. But whether or not that would have enabled it to withstand a direct strike depends on who you ask.

Doomsday came in the form of a wayward ship weighing more than 100,000 tons. The Dali destroyed a thoroughfare that carried 30,000 cars a day across Baltimore’s harbor and sent authorities scrambling to search for victims. They have found the bodies of two of the men killed, and vowed to recover the other four as they clean up the mess of mangled steel and concrete in the channel.

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