Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Frequently Asked Questions

May 8, 2024 1:30 PM

The following is the May 7, 2024, Congressional Research Service report, Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Frequently Asked Questions.

From the report

At about 1:30 a.m. on March 26, 2024, the MV Dali, a container ship departing the Port of Baltimore, struck a support tower of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, MD, causing the bridge to collapse into the Patapsco River. The bridge is a segment of Interstate 695—Baltimore’s beltway—and spans the Patapsco shipping channel into the harbor.

A pothole repair crew of eight was on the bridge at the time of the collision. Two have survived; one with injuries. Authorities were able to stop traffic over the bridge right before the vessel strike. There were 23 mariners aboard the ship, and none sustained injury. A Unified Command and Joint Information Center have been established by the U.S. Coast Guard and Maryland state officials to coordinate their response and disseminate information on the

Who Owns and Controls the Ship?

The Dali is being chartered (leased) by Maersk, a Danish shipping firm that provides container shipping services worldwide in addition to other types of shipping. The ship is managed by the Synergy Marine Group and owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd., both based in Singapore. The ship’s crew are from India. It is flagged and homeported in Singapore and was classed (meaning certified as meeting construction and maintenance standards) by a Japanese firm, Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (ClassNK). The multitude of nationalities involved in operating and administering the ship is typical of the industry.

The ship was built in 2015 by Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea with a MAN-manufactured engine. It is almost 950 feet in length and about 160 feet in breadth with a capacity to carry 10,000 TEUs of containers (a TEU is a 20-foot container). It could be considered an average-sized container ship today but would be considered a large ship compared with the fleet in the late 1970s when the bridge was built. The ship had sailed from Asia through the Panama Canal and had called at Norfolk and New York before its Baltimore port call. When it struck the bridge, the ship was departing Baltimore for Sri Lanka.

How Do Ships Navigate Through Harbors?

A preliminary report stated that the ship lost power as it was approaching the bridge, meaning the ship may have lost propulsion. Two Baltimore harbor pilots were aboard the ship; harbor pilots navigate ships in and out of harbors because they have expertise with local navigation conditions. Even when harbor pilots are at the helm, the captain of the ship and the shipping line (Maersk) remain responsible for the safety of the vessel. Tugs typically assist in moving ships into and out of their berths (docking and undocking) and rarely escort ships through harbors as an emergency safety measure. This ship released the tugs before reaching the bridge, as is reportedly normal in the harbor.

How Common Is It for Ships to Lose Power?

Loss of propulsion is a known and recorded occurrence in shipping. An annual review of marine incidents for vessels with a connection to the European Union (EU; EU-registered or EU-owned vessels or incidents occurring in EU waters) found that loss of propulsion surpassed vessel-to-vessel collisions as the leading cause of marine casualties from 2014 to 2022.

Could Tug Escorts Have Prevented the Collapse of the Bridge?

Some observers have raised the question of whether tugs escorting the ship under the bridge could have prevented the ship from hitting one of the towers. After the ship reportedly lost power, the pilot called for tug assistance moments before striking the bridge, but by then it was too late for the tugs to reach the ship again. Tugs have the ability to push ships in a desired direction and even stop ships over some distance, but they must have sufficient engine power and have other design features specifically for this purpose.

Some harbors require tug escorts but they appear to be exclusively for tankers of liquid bulk cargoes, such as oil, chemicals, or liquid natural gas (LNG). The requirements are not intended to specifically prevent bridge strikes but rather to prevent any event that might result in a spill, such as a tanker grounding. Tug escorts are a federal requirement in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and in Puget Sound, Washington.11 The State of California requires tug escorts of tankers in its harbors per state regulation. However, requiring tug escorts can introduce additional risk exposure simply due to the mere presence of more vessels on the water. For instance, in January 2023, one of five tugs assisting an empty tanker into the Port of Corpus Christi accidently got caught in the tanker’s propeller. The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) forthcoming report on the MV Dali strike may provide insights into the safety benefits and drawbacks of tug escorts.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court distinguished federal regulations concerning the safe operation of tankers in harbors from nonfederal requirements that can be imposed if they do not conflict with federal requirements and are based on “the peculiarities of local waters.”

State proposals concerning ship safety could also interfere with international treaties that have established global standards. While local requirements for tug escorts are allowed, ports may be reluctant to require them because of their cost and the heightened competition for containerized cargo.

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