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Baltimore Bridge Collapses After Powerless Cargo Ship Rams Into Support Column, Six Presumed Dead

The ship struck one of the bridge's supports, causing the structure to collapse like a toy.

Maxaar Technologies via AP
Sattelite image of Baltimore Bridge Collapses Photo: Maxaar Technologies via AP
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A cargo ship lost power and rammed into a major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, destroying the span in a matter of seconds and plunging it into the river in a terrifying collapse that could disrupt a vital shipping port for months. Six people were missing and presumed dead, and the search for them was suspended until the next day.

The ship's crew issued a mayday call moments before the crash took down the Francis Scott Key Bridge, enabling authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the span, Maryland's governor said.

The ship struck one of the bridge's supports, causing the structure to collapse like a toy. A section of the span came to rest on the bow of the vessel, which caught fire.

In the evening, Col Roland L Butler Jr, superintendent for Maryland State Police, announced that the search and rescue mission was transitioning to one of search and recovery. He also said the search was being put on pause and divers would return to the site at 6 am Wednesday, when challenging overnight conditions are expected to improve.

The crash happened in the middle of the night, long before the busy morning commute on the bridge that stretches 2.6 kilometres and was used by 12 million vehicles last year.

The six people still unaccounted for were part of a construction crew filling potholes on the bridge, said Paul Wiedefeld, the state's transportation secretary.

A senior executive at the company that employed the workers said Tuesday afternoon that they were presumed dead, given the water's depth and the length of time since the crash.

Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders, said the crew was working in the middle of the bridge when it came down. No bodies have been recovered, and rescuers continued the search into the late afternoon.

Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks when the bridge went down.

"I know that a month ago, I was there, and I know what it feels like when the trailers pass," Campos said.

Rescuers pulled two people out of the water. One person was treated at a hospital and discharged hours later. Multiple vehicles also went into the river, although authorities did not believe anyone was inside.

"It looked like something out of an action movie," Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said, calling it "an unthinkable tragedy".

A police dispatcher put out a call just before the collapse saying a ship had lost its steering and asked officers to stop all traffic on the bridge, according to Maryland Transportation Authority first responder radio traffic obtained from the Broadcastify.com archive.

One officer who stopped traffic radioed that he was going to drive onto the bridge to alert the construction crew. But seconds later, a frantic officer said, "The whole bridge just fell down. Start, start whoever, everybody ... the whole bridge just collapsed."

On a separate radio channel for maintenance and construction workers, someone said officers were stopping traffic because a ship had lost steering. There was no follow-up order to evacuate, and 30 seconds later the bridge fell and the channel went silent.

The collapse is sure to create a logistical nightmare for months, if not years, along the East Coast, shutting down ship traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major shipping hub.

"Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast," Maryland state Senator Johnny Ray Salling said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaking at a news conference near the site, said it was too soon to estimate how long it will take to clear the channel, which is about 50 feet deep.

"I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size," he said.

Synergy Marine Group -- which manages the ship, called the Dali -- confirmed the vessel hit a pillar of the bridge at about 1.30 am while in control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely into and out of ports. The ship is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd.

Synergy said all crew members and the two pilots on board were accounted for.

The bridge spans the Patapsco River at the entrance to a busy harbor, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Opened in 1977, the bridge is named for the writer of "The Star-Spangled Banner".

President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore and intends for the federal government to pick up the entire cost of rebuilding.

The Dali was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and flying under a Singapore flag, according to data from Marine Traffic.

Inspectors found a problem with the Dali's machinery in June, but a more recent examination did not identify any deficiencies, according to the shipping information system Equasis.

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Danish shipping giant Maersk said it had chartered the vessel.

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