Video still from Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse
A moment from the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, captured by a StreamTimeLive camera (Video still)

Imag­ine if one of the vital­ly impor­tant bridges link­ing Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon was hit by a big car­go ship and fell into the Colum­bia Riv­er. That is what hap­pened last night in Bal­ti­more, where a dis­abled ship slammed into the sup­port struc­ture of the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge, caus­ing a total col­lapse of its main sec­tion and block­ing marine traf­fic to and from the Port of Baltimore.

The cat­a­stroph­ic inci­dent occurred at 01:28 East­ern Day­light Time today — 22:28 PM Pacif­ic Day­light Time on Mon­day, March 25th — while much of Mary­land was asleep. The con­tain­er ship Dali, which had just left the Port of Bal­ti­more, crashed into the bridge and knocked it into the riv­er, send­ing sev­er­al peo­ple and vehi­cles down into the water below. The ship’s crew had been able to give an advance warn­ing to the author­i­ties in Mary­land that a col­li­sion was like­ly immi­nent min­utes before, explain­ing that the ship had lost power.

The bridge col­lapse was cap­tured on video. Though it was dark, the cat­a­stroph­ic fail­ure of the struc­ture can be observed fol­low­ing the ship strike. Con­struct­ed in the 1970s and opened in 1977, the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge was a steel arch-shaped con­tin­u­ous-through-truss bridge. It was 1.6 miles long (equiv­a­lent to 2.6 kilo­me­ters) and car­ried four lanes of vehi­cle traf­fic, facil­i­tat­ing the jour­neys of an aver­age of more than 11 mil­lion vehi­cles a year, or 31,000 vehi­cles per day. 

A Stream­Time­Live cam­era cap­tured the inci­dent in its entirety

Wikipedia con­trib­u­tors have so far sum­ma­rized the inci­dent as follows:

Dali left the Port of Bal­ti­more at 00:44 EDT on March 26, 2024, bound for Colom­bo, Sri Lan­ka. Short­ly after­wards, the ves­sel, which had two pilots embarked, report­ed­ly noti­fied the Mary­land Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion that they had lost con­trol of the ves­sel and a col­li­sion with the bridge was pos­si­ble, cit­ing a loss of propul­sion. A may­day was issued, which allowed traf­fic cross­ing the bridge to be halt­ed. The ship’s lights were seen to go out and then come on again some moments lat­er, just pri­or to the col­li­sion. The ship also dropped its anchors as part of emer­gency pro­ce­dures. At 01:28, the ship struck a sup­port col­umn of the bridge at a speed of 8 knots. The bridge strike and par­tial col­lapse were record­ed on video.

The bridge broke apart in sev­er­al places, leav­ing sec­tions of it pro­trud­ing from the water and the road­way’s approach­es cut off where the spans began. Dali caught fire, and a sec­tion of the bridge came to rest on the tip of its bow, ren­der­ing it sta­tion­ary. A Bal­ti­more City Fire Depart­ment spokesper­son said vehi­cles were on the bridge at the time it col­lapsed, includ­ing one that was the “size of a trac­tor-trail­er”. A Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tive on scene told res­cuers that at least 20 work­ers were repair­ing pot­holes on the bridge at the time of the col­lapse. Paul Wiede­feld, the Mary­land Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion, said that there were con­trac­tors under­tak­ing con­crete deck repair on the bridge at the time of the col­lapse. A res­i­dent liv­ing near the bridge recalled being awak­ened by deep rum­bling that shook his res­i­dence for sev­er­al sec­onds fol­low­ing the col­lapse, which he said “felt like an earthquake.”

Emer­gency teams began receiv­ing 911 calls at 01:30. The Bal­ti­more Police Depart­ment was alert­ed to the col­lapse at 01:35. May­or of Bal­ti­more Bran­don Scott said that emer­gency per­son­nel were on scene and that he was en route to the site. Large-scale res­cue and recov­ery efforts were ini­ti­at­ed. The U.S. Coast Guard deployed boats and a heli­copter as part of res­cue efforts. Res­cue divers were also dis­patched to search for peo­ple who fell in the riv­er. A total of 50 divers divid­ed into eight teams were deployed in res­cue efforts.

The Nation­al Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Board, which is tasked with inves­ti­gat­ing dis­as­ters like these, said it was send­ing a “go team” to the scene. The first media brief­ing was sched­uled to be held and led by NTSB Board Chair Jen­nifer Home­ndy at 11:30 AM Pacif­ic Time, streamed live on YouTube. Home­ndy will speak from the media stag­ing area set up by the author­i­ties in Dun­dalk, Maryland.

Pres­i­dent Joe Biden addressed reporters at The White House to com­ment on the bridge col­lapse, and said he would be ask­ing Con­gress for funds to cov­er one hun­dred per­cent of the cost of replac­ing the bridge. The White House press corps also relayed that the Pres­i­dent spoke to the fol­low­ing fed­er­al, state, and local offi­cials in the after­math of the bridge collapse: 

  • Sec­re­tary Pete Buttigieg, Depart­ment of Transportation
  • Gov­er­nor Wes Moore (MD)
  • Sen­a­tor Ben Cardin (MD)
  • Sen­a­tor Chris Van Hollen (MD)
  • Con­gress­man Kweisi Mfume (MD-07)
  • May­or Bran­don M. Scott, Bal­ti­more, MD
  • John­ny Olszews­ki, Exec­u­tive of Bal­ti­more Coun­ty, MD

One of the biggest ques­tions we don’t know the answer to right now is why the Dali lost pow­er. This will undoubt­ed­ly be a major focus of the NTS­B’s probe. Inves­ti­ga­tors will prob­a­bly also con­sid­er whether the bridge could have bet­ter pro­tect­ed from the threat of ship strike. 

The cat­a­stro­phe is a dou­ble wham­my for Bal­ti­more. It has jeop­ar­dized oper­a­tions at one of the nation’s busiest car­go ports and wrecked a vital high­way cross­ing, which will increase con­ges­tion and length­en com­mute times. Some trucks car­ry­ing haz­ardous car­goes can’t use the tun­nels that would oth­er­wise be the log­i­cal alter­nate routes, and will face long detours. 

“For 47 years, that bridge on the south­east side of the Bal­ti­more Belt­way has been an icon­ic land­mark, not just as a way to skirt Baltimore’s often con­gest­ed har­bor tun­nels or a con­ve­nience for trac­tor-trail­ers serv­ing the Helen Delich Bent­ley Port of Bal­ti­more, but for its extra­or­di­nary view of the bustling port and the tidal waters of both the riv­er and the Chesa­peake Bay far to the east,” wrote the edi­to­r­i­al board of The Bal­ti­more Sun, the city’s news­pa­per of record.

“To watch it col­lapse so quick­ly, as cap­tured on a now well-cir­cu­lat­ed video, is both shock­ing and yet emblem­at­ic of our social media-dri­ven online video shar­ing age. Of course, the world would see this dis­as­ter with­in min­utes of its unfold­ing — long before expla­na­tions could be offered or even vic­tims account­ed for.”

“There are many ques­tions to be answered in the days ahead,” the board added. “The hows and whys and what-ifs that inevitably fol­low an appar­ent acci­dent involv­ing an enor­mous ship veer­ing so far off course. We will grieve for the vic­tims, offer com­fort to their fam­i­lies and soon direct our­selves to the impor­tant task of return­ing ves­sel traf­fic to the port, which han­dles $74 bil­lion in car­go annu­al­ly and is respon­si­ble for more than 15,000 direct jobs.”

“It would be dif­fi­cult to over­state the port’s impor­tance to the local econ­o­my. After vic­tims are account­ed for and inves­ti­ga­tors have com­plet­ed their duties — but long before offi­cials face the ardu­ous and poten­tial­ly cost­ly labor of rebuild­ing or replac­ing the bridge — there is the daunt­ing task of clear­ing the debris and reopen­ing the ship­ping channel.”

As men­tioned above, the first NTSB media brief­ing is sched­uled for 11:30 PDT. Read­ers inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about the bridge col­lapse may want to tune in then (or watch on demand after) to hear what Board Chair Home­ndy and the inves­ti­gat­ing team have to say. 

NPI urges Con­gress to take up Pres­i­dent Biden’s request to appro­pri­ate one hun­dred per­cent of the funds that will be need­ed to clear the ship­ping chan­nel and rebuild the bridge. 

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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