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Lead Key Bridge investigator is experienced mariner with roots aboard oil rigs

Alex Mann, Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

BALTIMORE — The man federal authorities tapped to lead an investigation into a massive cargo ship’s crash into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge and the bridge’s immediate, deadly collapse is an experienced mariner who traces his seafaring roots to time spent aboard oil rigs.

Marcel Muise joined the National Transportation Safety Board as a marine accident investigator in 2018 after more than two decades in the maritime industry, where he served in several capacities for the Coast Guard and worked on numerous private vessels, rising through the ranks from mate to captain.

John Konrad, who worked alongside Muise for a decade in the maritime business before launching gCaptain.com, an industry news site, called Muise a “bona fide captain,” saying he sailed under the highest license administered by the Coast Guard and gained such expertise overseeing the construction of oil rigs in South Korea.

“He walks the deck. He understands the engine systems — not just the technical stuff, but how you run them,” Konrad told The Baltimore Sun.

Between 2018 and 2021, Muise played a leading role in the investigations into at least three deadly accidents, according to an NTSB spokesman. The agency appointed Muise investigator in charge of its probe into the Titan submersible, which imploded last summer — killing the five people inside — in the Atlantic Ocean on an expedition to the deep ocean wreck of the Titanic.

Former marine investigators described his experience as invaluable for confronting the biggest job of his career: Figuring out why a container ship crashed March 26 into one of the Key Bridge’s critical supports, causing the bridge to collapse and killing six members of a construction crew who were filling potholes, and ultimately crafting safety recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy.

In addition to the death toll, the crash indefinitely interrupted vessel traffic in and out of the Port of Baltimore, a key economic and transit hub whose impact reaches far beyond Maryland. The 984-foot, 112,000-ton Dali still sits aground among the mangled steel and concrete that once transported more than 30,000 vehicles a day over the port’s main and only channel into the Chesapeake Bay.

“This one has a level of interest that is not usual,” Barry Strauch, who served as an NTSB investigator for more than three decades, told the Sun.

In any safety board probe, the lead investigator is responsible for setting the pace of the investigation and coordinating groups of experts assembled to look into certain elements of the accident, according to Strauch and Thomas Roth-Roffy, who investigated marine accidents for the NTSB for 18 years.

The NTSB declined to make Muise available for an interview. But on his LinkedIn page, Muise describes himself as a capable leader, nodding to his experience commanding oil rigs.

“As Master of a modern drillship, I supervised a crew of 120 with responsibility for up to 90 more people onboard,” his page says. “This includes everything from overseeing hotel services, resolving HR issues and emergency management to implementing a thorough safety management system and preventive maintenance for a $700 million asset.”

In the Key Bridge case, the NTSB established investigative groups for nautical operations, engineering, recorders and survival factors, board Chair Jennifer Homendy said during a news conference last Wednesday.

Homendy said investigators in those groups began interviewing crew members last week; collected and began processing data from the Dali’s voyage data recorder, which stores information about the ship’s operation as well as recording conversations among those aboard; and requested scores of documents related to the ship’s maintenance and inspection history.

 

Before taking questions last Wednesday, Homendy stepped aside for Muise to lay out the timeline of the crash in front of a dozen television cameras and twice as many reporters.

Guided by two tugboats, the Dali left the port around 12:50 a.m., he said. Signs of trouble arose about 30 minutes later, when the ship was moving under its own power in the channel. In a mayday call, the harbor pilot reported losing all power and steering. The pilot ordered the crew to drop an anchor and issued steering commands to no avail. Drifting at speed, it crashed into the Key Bridge at around 1:29 a.m.

The NTSB’s probe will examine not only failures aboard the Dali that led to reported power outages before it struck a bridge pier, but why the bridge crumbled instantaneously. Complicated though the investigation surely is, Strauch pointed out several factors that should assist NTSB investigators and that aren’t always available to them.

“The ship is there. The crew members are there,” Strauch said of the Dali’s predominantly Indian crew, who remain aboard the vessel. “So there’s a lot of data that’s easy to obtain, you don’t have to go halfway around the world, or in the case of the Titan, underwater.”

He also noted there is video of the crash.

“They will be able to derive from those videos the forces on the bridge that led to the collapse,” Strauch said. “That’s incredible evidence.”

Before the Key Bridge and the Titan, Muise chaired NTSB groups investigating the capsizing of a lift boat in 2021 off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 people; a fire aboard a dive boat off the coast of California in 2019 that left 34 dead; and the 2018 sinking of a amphibious passenger vessel in a Missouri lake that left 17 dead, according to an agency spokesperson.

And years before he became an investigator, Muise “shot up the ranks” at American drilling company Transocean, according to Konrad, who worked at the company with him.

He was chief mate of the offshore drilling vessel Deepwater Horizon, but was promoted to captain. Muise transferred away from that vessel a few months before it exploded into a fireball in 2010, killing 11 crew members, said Konrad, co-author of the book “Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster.”

“I think that’s what drove him to join the NTSB, is to prevent future incidents like that, because I know it affected him deeply,” Konrad said.

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©2024 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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