The Telegraph 2024-03-27 10:00:36

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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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