Behind the Baltimore Bridge Collapse

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Malik Miah

The wreckage on March 28, 2024, two days after the Dali cargo container hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Photo: National Transportation Safety Board

THE COLLAPSE OF the Francis Scott Key Bridge, after it was hit by the Dali cargo container ship in the Baltimore metropolitan area, was headline news. The background is less well publicized.

The 947-foot ship with four generators, lost all power, not once but twice, just before the crash that brought down the bridge. In mid-May, preliminary results by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that the cargo container had lost power four times over a 10-hour period.

The first blackout occurred during maintenance, when a crew member accidently closed an exhaust damper. As the backup generation kicked in, insufficient pressure shut it down. At that point the crew changed the ship’s electrical configuration.

Although the system worked for hours before the ship left, once it cleared the harbor and the tug boats returned to port for their next assignment, electrical breakers tripped and the engine automatically shut down. While the crew manually restored the breakers and the ship’s dispatcher alerted the Coast Guard and police, the main engine remained down. There was no propulsion to steer clear of the bridge.

According to Equasis, a shipping information system, “An inspection of the Dali last June at a port in Chile identified a problem with the ship’s “propulsion and auxiliary machinery.” The deficiency involved gauges and thermometers, but the website’s online records didn’t elaborate.

The 47-year-old bridge did not have pier protection to withstand the crash. It took 11 weeks to fully reopen the Baltimore port to commercial shipping, the ninth busiest in the country. But there was no announcement outlining a plan to ensure better safety regulations and working conditions.

Although the cargo ship was towed back to the Baltimore port May 20, the crew of 21, mostly from India, remain on board. Immediately following the accident they were tested for alcohol and drugs; all tested negative.

The FBI confiscated their cell phones and their major concern is having them returned so they can be in touch with their families. Meanwhile they are maintaining the ship’s systems and must be available for further investigation.

Further, six of the eight maintenance workers repairing potholes on the bridge died, all immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The youngest were in their 20s, while the eldest was a 49-year-old grandfather.

Behind the Disaster

Why didn’t tugboats stay with the ship and escort it into the channel and broader Chesapeake Bay? That isn’t mandatory at the Baltimore port; if shippers request it, there is an additional charge. When the Dali first lost power, the captain frantically requested the tugboats, but they weren’t able to arrive in time.

The crash indicates more precautions need to be taken. It is one thing for a small boat to hit a bridge, another for a massive ship. Cargo ships are essential to move goods worldwide. Profits drive decision making, not workers’ welfare and safety.

In addition, there are unique Maritime Laws that limit ships’ liability. The government looks the other way. Insurance companies can legally avoid massive payouts when sued.

Under 19th century legislation, the Singapore-based owner of Dali has already filed a court petition to limit their legal liability. Companies’ “limitation of liability” petition is a routine but important procedure for cases litigated under U.S. maritime law.

A federal court in Maryland decides who is responsible — and how much they owe — for what could become one of the costliest catastrophes of its kind.

Bridges Needing Repair

Around 46,100 of the 617,000 bridges across the United States, or 7.5% are considered structurally deficient and in poor condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent infrastructure report cards released in 2021.

The 2023 report by ARTBA, American Road & Transportation Building Association, says there are 167 million crossings on 42,400 bridges rated in poor condition; one in three U.S. bridges needs repair or replacement.

As of June 2023, states have committed 30 per cent of the new bridge formula funds currently available through year two of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

While structurally deficient bridges are not inherently unsafe, they require substantial investment to maintain. They are at higher risk for closures or weight restrictions. While many of the country’s older bridges are vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes or elevated heat.

Some 21,000 bridges were found to be susceptible to having their foundations threatened during extreme weather events, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 report.

The seismic resilience of the U.S. highway system has improved in recent decades thanks to investments in new, more resilient infrastructure and the retrofitting of existing structures, a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service found.

California, for example, has done major upgrades since the 1989, when the Lorna Prieta earthquake collapsed the top section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. (Not so on the East Coast, where a small 4.8 magnitude earthquake hit the New Jersey-New York region on April 5.)

Still, the report said, not every highway or bridge has been retrofitted, and there is not yet a way to build infrastructure in a way that is both cost effective and able to withstand the most intense earthquakes.

Additionally, bridges are strained by trucks that are heavier than those the bridges were designed for. These heavier trucks, which can surpass 40-ton loads, threaten to over-stress bridge elements, cause metal fatigue and cracking, and decrease bridges’ lifespans, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers report.

Aging infrastructure, extreme weather and bigger vehicles aren’t the only concerns. There is an urgent need to improve or protect old bridges against larger and larger modern vessels. More than 17,000 bridges are vulnerable to collapse from a single hit, known as a “fracture critical” bridge. That means that if they are struck with enough force in just the right spot, a big section or the entire bridge could collapse.

According to the NTSB the Baltimore bridge was “fracture critical.” In the first three months of 2024, along with the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsing, a bridge in southern China was sliced in half, and in Argentina parts of a bridge were cut through after large commercial ships collided with them.

“Ships have gotten bigger, and container ports are focused on deepening their cargo. While we are encouraging bigger containers, we need to protect bridges in these one-off situations,” Ananth Prasad, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association, told CNN. To minimize this potential, bridges need to be built with what are known as redundancies — protections around bridges’ danger points.

These include “dolphins” — structures rooted in the seabed or riverbed, extending above the water, typically made from timber or steel — or “fenders,” structures that move objects away from vulnerable points on the bridge to deflect some of the force if there is an impact.

The MSC Irina is the largest container ship in the world. It is 200 feet wide and 1312 feet long. For comparison, the Empire State building in New York is 1454 feet long.

The rise of massive ships has pressured ports to adapt. When an expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016 allowed larger ships to pass through, major Eastern Seaboard ports reacted by investing billions of dollars, said Jean-Paul Rodriguez, professor in the department of maritime business administration at Texas A&M University-Galveston.

The ports, including Baltimore, scrambled “to dredge, to expand the infrastructure, to buy new cranes to accommodate these ships,” he said. The Ever Max, which is over 1200 feet long and can hold up to 15,432 20-foot containers, became the largest container ship to ever enter the port of Baltimore.

In the 1970s, when the Francis Scott Key Bridge was built, the average size for a ship or tanker was 66 by 705 feet. Bulk ships and tankers have been on the bigger side for decades and carry wet and dry goods that include oil and coal — a major export for the Baltimore port. Of the 4,680 containers on the Dali, 56 contained hazardous materials but none entered the water.

Size matters even when ships like the Dali, 157 feet wide by 947 feet long, and is equipped with four generators for one main engine. Except for the emergency generator, any one can feed the engine. Although it is still unclear why the generators failed, the pilots and crew worked to keep the ship away from hitting the bridge pillars.

Size also played a role when a 1,300-foot vessel got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, causing alarming shipping delays.

The Latino Workers

Who were the workers who died?

Maynor Yessir Suazo Sandoval, 38, was the youngest of eight siblings. Suazo Sandoval grew up in Azacualpa, Honduras. He immigrated to the United States more than 17 years ago, and sent money back to his hometown, even sponsoring a soccer league.

He loved visiting parks and beaches with his wife and two children. Skilled with machinery, he dreamed of starting his own business, according to the immigrant support group CASA, of which he was a member.

Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, was born in Guatemala. A friend, Melvin Ruiz, told The Baltimore Sun that Castillo Cabrera was a kind and “genuinely selfless person” with a joyous sense of humor. Ruiz noted that Castillo routinely volunteered to drive fellow crew members to work and other Baltimore’s Latino community members to the store or to various appointments as needed.

Castillo’s body was recovered in the submerged truck, alongside Alejandro (“Alex”) Hernández Fuentes, the crew’s supervisor.

Jose Mynor Lopez, in his 30s, described as a loving family man and an attentive father, emigrated to the United States 19 years ago from Guatemala in order to create better opportunities for his family.

He had four children, including a young daughter, his uncle Wilmer Raul Orellana said. His wife worked at Owls Corner Cafe in Dundalk, where a cafe co-owner set up a GoFundMe to raise money for his family.

Miguel Luna Gonzalez, 49, was from El Salvador. He immigrated to the United States about 19 years ago and was also a member of CASA.

He became a welder but when not working construction, he often cooked alongside his wife, who operates a food truck called Pupuseria Y Antojitos Carmencita Luna.

One friend reminisced about their time playing professional soccer in El Salvador as young men; Luna was a skilled defender.

• The Mexican embassy told The Sun that three Mexicans were working on the bridge when it collapsed. Julio Hernández escaped through the window of a work vehicle and clung to debris until rescued. But Carlos Hernández 24, and Alejandro Hernández Fuentes, 35, — the three were related — did not.

Hernández Fuentes was the supervisor of the crew working on the bridge that night. Former coworkers described “Alex” as a “fireball” who took his job seriously and climbed the ranks at Brawner Builders, the company that employed the workers. He was started as a laborer and was promoted to driving a company truck.

Unions’ Response

Roland “Rex” Rexha is the secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association. Established in 1875, it’s the oldest maritime trade union in the U.S., representing licensed deck and engine officers.

Rexha told The Portside Work-Bites that the Dali disaster highlights the downside of not having ships escorted by tugboats until they are out on the open sea away from critical infrastructure — as well as the risks associated with building larger and larger vessels, using automation as justification for reducing crew size, and the wide variance between U.S. maritime safety standards and the rest of the world.

“As for having tug assistance when they are going under a bridge, these are changes of policy where we defer to what the mandatory policies are of the individual port; what they deem is the safest way to operate,” Rexha says.

“When you are talking about a large cruise ship or a cargo ship like this one, if they are out of the harbor and they lose power they are not going to hit anything, they are in the middle of the ocean. But as they are operating in local waters, that’s where you have to be really diligent.”

As cargo ships have gotten bigger and technology advanced, Rexha points out, they have all gone to minimum crewing: “Where in the past you had ten officers per department, you have half that,” Rexha noted.

“At that point, everything becomes more difficult when there is an issue, which is most likely going to happen when you are trying to maneuver the ship. That’s the most dangerous part of any transit for any ship. That’s when there’s the potential hazard — that’s where there’s the potential for a real tragedy.”

Glenn Corbett, associate professor of fire science and public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, observes: “It would have been a bargain to have tugboats escort that ship as opposed to having to spend $12 billion to replace this bridge, avoid the loss of life and the major hit to that region’s economy.”

The bottom line is clear: ship disasters and bridge collapses will happen again so long as the profit motive drives all corporate and government policy makers.

July-August 2024, ATC 231

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