The Telegraph 2024-03-27 01:00:42


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Mayday alert as ship drifted towards Baltimore bridge ‘saved many lives’

The 22-strong crew of the Dali container ship first realised something was horribly wrong at 1.24am on Monday night, when they lost power while sailing along the Patapsco River.

The vessel was 30 minutes into a 27-day journey from Baltimore to Sri Lanka, carrying cargo for the shipping giant Maersk and sailing under the Singaporean flag.

But as it approached the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Baltimore’s gateway to the Chesapeake Bay, the lights went out. The crew, helmed by two local “pilots” trained to traverse the bay, immediately contacted the Maryland Department of Transportation and issued a mayday call.

Officials on land watched in horror as they realised it was too late to stop the ship drifting, and frantically closed both the road across the bridge and shipping lane beneath it.

The ship’s power returned briefly, then turned off again, and smoke began to billow across the river.

Shortly before 1.29am, the Dali collided with a pillar almost halfway across the bridge, collapsing three of its main spans and trapping the vessel underneath steel trusses.

Vehicles on the bridge were sent hurtling into the freezing water, and a group of young people relaxing in a park on the south side of the bridge watched in horror as the bridge collapsed almost entirely in less than 30 seconds.

At 1.30am, the Baltimore fire department was alerted to an emergency, beginning a search and rescue operation that would involve dozens of local, state and federal agencies.

As initial reports suggested that eight construction workers had been repairing potholes on the 1.6-mile bridge when the ship struck, the task facing rescue workers became clear.

A person can survive in 8C water for around an hour before losing consciousness, and around three hours before dying, according to estimates by the National Centre for Cold Water Safety.

But the situation was complicated by the fact that sonar identified cars that had fallen to the bottom of the 50ft shipping channel. The strong tides of the Chesapeake Bay made the rescue job even harder.

As the minutes ticked by, a fire department spokesman said responders were dealing with a “developing mass casualty event”. Two people were pulled from the water, one unharmed and another in a serious condition.

Jen Woof, who lives on the south side of the river, was woken on Tuesday morning by her son, Jayden, who had crossed the bridge three times – the last time just three minutes before it collapsed.

Jayden had expected to spend the night with his girlfriend on the north side of the river, but travelled back home after the pair had an argument. Feeling guilty about the incident, he drove back to apologise, but his girlfriend sent him away. The third time he crossed, he was one of the last people to do so.

“He got over the bridge just three minutes before the bridge collapsed,” Ms Woof told The Telegraph.

“He was actually almost to our house when his girlfriend started texting him to ask if he was OK. He thought she was texting because they were arguing, and she said the bridge had collapsed.

“He came into my house, frantically panicking and yelling for me and showing me a video.”

Kayte O’Neill said she first heard about the disaster in a text from a friend on Tuesday morning.

“My literal response back was, ‘BRB [be right back], I’m going to throw up.’ And I did in fact throw up,” she said.

“I just feel bad for the people who are watching their screens because they had people who were on that bridge. I can’t even put myself in their shoes. I can’t.”

As the sun rose, search and rescue teams ran a complex operation involving helicopters, dive teams and drones searching the river for possible survivors.

A senior source involved in the operation told The Telegraph at 7.45am that the “odds are not looking good”.

By afternoon, the authorities had identified six missing people who were thought to have spent almost 12 hours in the water.

An underwater investigation found a concrete lorry that had fallen from the bridge and debris from the bridge scattered across the riverbed. Officials established a no-fly zone across the bay to prevent drone hobbyists from interfering with the search.

Concerns were also raised of a fuel spill, after the local authorities reported a smell of diesel around the wreck of the Dali. The ship’s crew remained on board, waiting to be rescued.

Speaking from the White House, Joe Biden said that the actions of the sailors who contacted the authorities before the bridge collapsed “undoubtedly saved lives” of motorists who would otherwise have driven across it.

He described the collapse as a “terrible accident” and said the bridge would be fully rebuilt using federal funds, while his administration would work to reopen the Port of Baltimore.

“We’re going to get it up and running again as soon as possible,” he said. “Fifteen thousand jobs depend on that port, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect those jobs and help those workers.”

He also claimed he had travelled over the collapsed Baltimore bridge “many many times” by both car and train, despite the structure not having any railway lines.

The ports of New York and Virginia said they would handle Baltimore’s freight traffic until Baltimore was reopened.

Wes Moore, the governor of Maryland, said the quick action of “heroes” in the middle of the night before the disaster had averted much of the possible loss of life.

“I’m thankful for the folks who, once the warning came up that there was a mayday, [were] able to stop cars from coming over the bridge… These people are heroes,” he said.

For locals, the loss of Baltimore’s iconic bridge is both an emotional and economic strain.

“We were on that bridge on Wednesday,” said Erin Miller, who lives nearby. “It’s going to cause a lot of traffic.

“A lot of people are going to be late to work, irritated, and it’s probably going to devastate Baltimore for a good few weeks. Probably a good few months.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which deals with the threat of terrorism, said there was “no indications that this was an intentional act”, although the FBI has begun an investigation into the cause of the ship’s power loss. One possible avenue of inquiry is why the ship could not divert its course after it became clear there was a problem.

“I am assuming the first line of investigation will be to understand why the vessel could not avoid the pier when there were no other vessels around,” said Dr Marina Bock, of Aston University.

The crash ended the life of the bridge, which began construction in 1972 and opened to road traffic in 1977.

Its namesake, Francis Scott Key, was an American lawyer and amateur poet best known for writing the lyrics to the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

He lived in Frederick, Maryland, 50 miles west of Baltimore, and wrote the poem after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

David Simon paid tribute to the impact the collapse would have on the city he immortalised as the creator of the HBO series The Wire.

“Thinking first of the people on the bridge, but the mind wanders to a port city strangling,” he said on X.

“All the people who rely on ships in and out. The auto-ship imports, Domino Sugar, coal exports, dockwork, whatever container traffic we didn’t lose to Norfolk. Industries. Jobs. Families.”

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Prince Harry dragged into Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs sexual assault lawsuit

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Robert Halfon quits as minister and MP quoting Lord of the Rings

Rishi Sunak has suffered a fresh blow after Robert Halfon, the Skills Minister, quit his post and announced he will stand down as an MP at the next election.

Mr Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow in Essex, became the 63rd Conservative to announce that they plan to quit Parliament on Tuesday.

In a letter to his local Tory association, Mr Halfon explained his decision to stand down as an MP by quoting from The Lord of the Rings.

“As I move towards stepping down at the General Election, I am reminded of what Gandalf said to Frodo Baggins after the defeat of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings,” he wrote.

“I am with you at present…but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire…My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.

“And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help…among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.

“Although I often feel more like the character Bilbo Baggins than Gandalf, I believe these words have great resonance, and perfectly capture my feelings as I move onto my next journey in life.”

In a letter to the Prime Minister he praised Mr Sunak and said he would “wholeheartedly support” his government from the backbenches.

Mr Halfon wrote: “After well over two decades as the Harlow Parliamentary Candidate and as MP, I feel that it is time for me to step down at the forthcoming General Election, and in doing so, to resign as a Minister in your Government. 

“I believe that across the country, there is quiet admiration for your work ethic, integrity and ability to solve complex problems faced by our country.”

In a letter of reply the Prime Minister said he was “very sorry” at Mr Halfon’s decision to quit and praised his record as an MP and minister.

“I appreciate that your decision will not have been an easy one to make, but I respect your reasons for doing so,” Mr Sunak wrote.

“Your unwavering support to our party, consecutive Conservative administrations and of course the people of Harlow is admirable.”

Mr Halfon’s resignation will further add to the sense of doom and gloom around the Tories amid talk that many of its MPs have already given up.

The record number of Conservatives who have stood down from Parliament in a single term is 75, which was set in the run-up to Labour’s 1997 landside. 

It is now expected that the party will exceed that tally under Mr Sunak, with some insiders fearing the number quitting the Commons could hit three figures.

Mr Halfon is the latest in a long line of experienced ministers and former ministers to announce they are stepping away from politics altogether. 

First elected in 2010, he became famous as an MP for his relentless campaigning on behalf of motorists which secured successive freezes in fuel duty.

David Cameron once dubbed him the most expensive backbencher in Britain, with the rate of fuel duty having been frozen for 14 consecutive years.

He served as the deputy chairman of the Tories from May 2015 to July 2016. Mr Sunak made him Skills Minister when he entered No 10 in October 2022.

His resignation came on the same day James Heappey served his last day as Armed Forces Minister, having also announced he is standing down as an MP.

Mr Heappey is understood to have decided to stand down now so that he will be clear to take a new job outside of politics after the general election. 

In recent weeks other senior figures including Theresa May, the former prime minister, have announced they are quitting Parliament. 

Tory insiders fear that the steady drumbeat of resignations has created a “stench of death” around the party, which trails Labour heavily in the polls.

Fellow Tories expressed sadness at Mr Halfon’s decision to quit with Steve Brine, the MP for Winchester, describing him as “one of the good guys”.

David Johnston, a fellow junior minister at the Department for Education, added: “It’s been great to work with him and he will be very much missed.”

Mr Halfon holds a majority of 14,000 over second-placed Labour in Harlow, meaning the seat will be a major target for Sir Keir Starmer at the next election.

Labour held the constituency in all three elections under Sir Tony Blair before losing it to the Conservatives in 2010.

The party is riding high in the polls and has overturned massive Tory majorities of 20,000 plus in recent by-elections, including Wellingborough and Mid-Bedfordshire.

Conservative support in Harlow also risks being squeezed this time around by Reform UK, which is polling at as high as 14pc in the polls nationally. 

Reform will be looking to repeat the performance of the UK Independence Party in 2015, when it came third in the seat with 16pc of the vote.

Downing Street announced a mini-reshuffle on Tuesday night following the resignations of Mr Heappey and Mr Halfon.

The exit of the two experienced ministers prompted a round of political musical chairs as the Prime Minister reorganised his troops to plug the gaps.

Leo Docherty, who was the Europe Minister, moved to Mr Heappey’s old job in the Ministry of Defence and became the new Armed Forces Minister.

Luke Hall, a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was drafted in to replace Mr Halfon as the Minister for Skills at the Department for Education.

Jonathan Gullis, the Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, became a deputy chairman of the Tories in place of Mr Hall.

“I’m ready to take the fight to Sir Keir’s hopeless and hapless Labour Party,” he said.

The moves saw Mr Docherty replaced at the Foreign Office by Nus Ghani, who left her job as the Minister for Industry and Economic Security.

Kevin Hollinrake was promoted within the Department for Business to fill that vacant role with Alan Mak, the Tory MP for Havant, drafted in as his replacement.

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Cadbury store accused of erasing Easter by selling ‘gesture eggs’

A Cadbury store has been accused of erasing Easter by advertising chocolate eggs as “gesture eggs”.

The brand’s discount store in Springfields Outlet in Spalding, Lincolnshire, is displaying signs offering customers a two-for-£10 deal on “gesture eggs”.

The omission of the word “Easter”, particularly when advertising its popular Easter eggs synonymous with the religious holiday, has provoked anger among the Christian community.

“If it wasn’t for Easter, we wouldn’t have a reason for Easter eggs,” said Tim Dieppe, the head of public policy at Christian Concern. “So I’m wondering why Cadbury wants to erase the connection between Easter and eggs, because if people stop celebrating Easter then they might stop buying Easter eggs.”

He added: “I’m surprised that they are avoiding saying the word ‘Easter’, as that’s the time of year – it’s the Easter holidays, the Easter festival – and I’m surprised they’d want to avoid reference to Easter with things like this.”

Cadbury said the Springfields Outlet store was run “completely independently” by Freshstore and denied having any involvement in the “gesture eggs” promotion or poster accompanying it.

One dismayed shopper also posted a picture of the sign advertising “gesture eggs” to X, formerly Twitter, writing: “The world’s gone.”

It is understood that the eggs on display have been named as “Special Gesture” eggs, and “Easter” is still used in other areas of Cadbury’s advertising.

‘Easter’ has gone missing before

It is not the first time the chocolate company has come under fire for omitting the word “Easter” in its marketing.

A row erupted after a National Trust Easter egg trail, sponsored by Cadbury, was renamed the “Great British Egg Hunt” in 2017.

Cadbury said at the time it wanted to appeal to non-Christians, saying: “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats.”

Meanwhile, staff at some universities have been told in recent years to avoid using the terms Christmas and Easter.

Staff at the University of Brighton were last year told that in future they should refer to the Christmas holidays as “the winter closure period”.

The London School of Economics followed suit, announcing that the Christmas holidays are to be known as “the winter break”, while Easter holidays were renamed “the spring break”.

A spokesman for Mondelez International, which owns Cadbury, said: “All Cadbury Easter shell eggs sold in the UK reference Easter very clearly on the packaging – sometimes multiple times.

“Cadbury has used the word Easter in our marketing and communications for over 100 years and continue to do so with our new Easter product range. To claim anything otherwise is factually incorrect.

“We are proud of the role we play within families’ Easter celebrations and have a wide range of products that can be enjoyed throughout the Easter season.”

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Tories pour cold water on Davie’s idea to charge wealthy more for BBC licence fee

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