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The steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore, Maryland, on 26 March. The bridge collapsed after being struck by a container ship. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Major Bridge in Baltimore Crumples into Water After Being Struck by Container Ship

In a catastrophic shipping incident early this morning, a container ship leaving the Port of Baltimore hit a support column of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing a large section of Interstate 695, a major thoroughfare into the city of Baltimore, to immediately collapse into the Patapsco River.

Dramatic surveillance video captured the incident, which occurred at approximately 1:30 a.m. on 26 March. While the timing meant the bridge was not in heavy use, a Baltimore Fire and Rescue spokesperson said sonar showed several vehicles in the water. In addition to vehicles using the bridge, there were contractors on the bridge doing road repair work. Rescue operations, which were ongoing at the time of this writing, had recovered two people from the water, one of them in critical condition.

An investigation is ongoing, but authorities said there is no indication that the incident was intentional. Surveillance footage from some distance away shows apparent power fluctuations on the ship. The ship goes completely dark and re-illuminates a few moments later and repeats the flicker a second time. Thick smoke can also be seen coming from the ship. It appears the ship veered off course as its lights were flickering. Soon after the lights came back the second time, the ship hit the support causing the collapse. The video below has been rendered in slow motion. 

The BBC spoke with an unnamed shipping expert who, after seeing the footage, said, “The vessel had just departed from berth and made a turn before hitting the bridge.” The expert speculated on possible reasons for the turn: main engine failure, steering failure, generator blackout, or pilot or human error.

“It’s an unusual turn. Before a ship departs, we are supposed to carry out all the checks on all elements of the vessel before it departs,” the expert said. “It’s part of the departure checklist. So, if everything was done, something was obviously overlooked.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that the ship is named Dali and sailed under the Singapore flag. It had two pilots aboard and a crew of 22, all of whom were uninjured in the incident. It had arrived in Baltimore from Norfolk and departed Baltimore at 1:00 a.m. According to the Associated Press, the vessel was bound for Sri Lanka.

The Key Bridge was opened in 1977 as an alternative to the traffic-clogged, beyond-capacity Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. The bridge carried more than 12.4 million vehicles in 2023. It was the primary route into and out of the city for oversized trucks or hazardous materials, both of which are prohibited from using the tunnels into the city.

Shipping to and from the port is suspended, and it is not yet known when commercial traffic will resume.

The port is an important economic engine for the city, state, and region. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, 15,330 people work at the port, and port commerce and activities relates directly to another 22,000 jobs. The port is relatively small compared to other major commercial East Coast ports. It handled 265,000 containers in the fourth quarter of 2023. That compares to 2 million containers handled by the Port of New York and New Jersey and 850,000 handled by the Norfolk Port during the same time period.

Baltimore is the busiest port for car shipments in the United States, handling more than 750,000 vehicles in 2023. At least 30 ships were enroute to Baltimore according to ship manifests, and a maritime newsletter said at least 10 ships had dropped anchor in nearby waters.