Home » Here’s Everything We Know About The Container Ship Crash That Destroyed The Francis Scott Key Bridge In Baltimore

Here’s Everything We Know About The Container Ship Crash That Destroyed The Francis Scott Key Bridge In Baltimore

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As you have no doubt seen, the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore collapsed when the container ship DALI (IMO 9697428) crashed into one of its supporting pylons at a speed of about eight knots, or 9 mph. The vessel had notified port authorities that the ship had lost power before the collision, which gave authorities a chance to stop traffic on the bridge. There were construction workers repairing potholes on the bridge; two were rescued, and six are still missing. There’s still so much we don’t know about what happened, so let’s take a moment to try and run down what we do know.

The ship itself was sailing under the Singapore flag and was en route to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Really, the DALI had only just started its voyage, leaving dock at about 12:23 am and hitting the bridge barely a half hour into the journey. The ship, much like the legendary coupé known as the Scoupe, was built by Hyundai, specifically Hyundai Heavy Industries, back in 2015.

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Here’s the path taken by the DALI, according to Marinetraffic.com:

Dali Path

As you can see, it’s a pretty simple J-shaped path, though you can note a deviation from its course near the top of the J (the bottom of the image), where the 985-foot-long ship veered into a path that would take it right smack into the bridge support. Radio traffic from the Maryland Transportation Authority at the time of the event gives a sense of what was happening:

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On that recording you can hear the controllers say

“Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge; there’s a ship approaching that just lost their steering, so until we get that under control we need to stop all traffic,”

…which was undoubtedly a call that saved lives.

Videos seem to show the ship losing power right before the impact, then power coming back, with an accompanying burst of diesel exhaust, right before impact. Here’s a video, with commentary from a shipping YouTube channel, that shows the event:

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While we don’t know yet what happened, things do seem to be pointing to some sort of mechanical issue that caused a power loss on the ship, which caused the ship to be out of control, since the rudder requires power to operate. It’s worth remembering that a 95,000 ton container ship is not a car; it can’t just stop, it’s floating, it has a colossal amount of mass and momentum, and it appears that efforts were being taken to slow or adjust the ship’s heading, including dropping one of the anchors.

Outlets like Sky news have talked to experts like David McFarlane, director of Maritime Risk and Safety Consultants Ltd, who feel the most likely culprit is steering system failure:

“The most likely cause of this is a failure in machinery or steering gear, but we just won’t know until the authorities have been on board. And even then, they’re unlikely to say what’s been going on for some considerable time.”

What’s confusing is that according to safety studies of power failures on ships conducted by the Safety Investigation Authority of Finland, there should be redundant and separate backup steering systems:

Ships have own electrical networks, production, distribution and connected consumers of electricity. The ship’s electrical network enables the ship to operate as an independent entity at sea and often also in port. The latter if the ship is not connected to shore power to ensure availability of electricity onboard.
A vessel’s electrical network can be implemented in a variety of ways. The intended use of the vessel, its type, as well as specific features in the vessel design determine how the electric network is implemented. In the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) it is required,that on vessels in international traffic, electricity can be produced by two independent sources, both of which alone has the capacity to produce electrical power enough to maintain the ship’s seaworthiness. The power needed onboard is produced by the ship’s own generators. They are rotating at constant speed, usually powered by diesel engines. From the diesel generators, electricity is transferred to the main electrical grid, which in turn distributes electricity to the consumer points. There can be one or more diesel-powered generators on a ship. The number and size of generators will depend on the ship’s need for electrical power.

Steering System
It must be possible to maintain the ship’s manoeuvrability when the propulsion engine is running and even after it has stopped e.g. due to a hardware failure. Because of this, components in the ship’s steering system, e.g. equipment conveying steering commands and units producing power for steering, e.g. hydraulic pumps, are among the most important elements of the ship’s electrical network. Ships must be fitted with a main steering system and an auxiliary steering system that can be taken into use quickly. The main steering gear and the auxiliary steering gear must be constructed and installed so that a failure in one system does not affect the performance of the other. 6 Power units in the steering gear, such as electrically operated hydraulic pumps, must start automatically after a power failure.It must also be possible to take them in use from the navigating bridge. Failure of a power unit, or automatic startup failure, can result in decreased or loss of power for turning the rudder.Disturbances in the power units ofthe steering gear must activate an alarm on the navigating bridge.

So, what happened that redundant systems were unable to kick in?

A massive container ship’s rudder system is complex and massive, and while we don’t know exactly how the one on this ship works, you can see an example steering gear in the video below:

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Notably for our site, the Port of Baltimore is America’s biggest automotive port. Their website does have at least one glaring factual error on it – they say “Since becoming the port​ of entry for the first Volkswagen Beetle in 1963″ which is just not true – the first Beetles came to America in 1949 – the rest seems accurate. Baltimore is the port of entry for Volvo, Jaguar/Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, and other carmakers, so if the port is shut down, this could be a very big deal for getting new cars – especially European cars – into America.

I reached out to Susan Seranno, who is in charge of automotive cargo for the port. She wasn’t really authorized to say much, but did tell me this:

“Ship traffic has been suspended until further notice, but the port is still operating.”

That’s not a lot to go on, but I suppose it’s better than the port not operating.

Maersk is the Danish shipping colossus that had its cargo on the vessel, and issued a statement on their website:

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“In the early hours of 26 March 2024, a vessel collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge, resulting in damage to the structure. Information on the situation remains pending and we remain in close contact with officials in the area.

“We can confirm that the container vessel ’DALI,’  is owned by Grace Ocean, and operated by Synergy Group. It is time chartered by Maersk and is carrying Maersk customers’ cargo. No Maersk crew and personnel were onboard the vessel.

“Due to the damage to the bridge and resulting debris, it will not be possible to reach the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore for the time being. In line with this, we are omitting Baltimore on all our services for the foreseeable future, until it is deemed safe for passage through this area.

“For cargo already on water, we will omit the port, and will discharge cargo set for Baltimore, in nearby ports. From these ports, it will be possible to utilise landside transportation to reach final destination instead. Your local Maersk representative can assist in booking this.

“Please note that for cargo set to discharge in Baltimore, delays may occur, as they will need to discharge in other ports. We are keeping a close eye on the safety situation in the area and continuing to assess the viability of transportation through the area. We will inform you of any changes that may impact your cargo.

“We are deeply concerned by this incident and are closely monitoring the situation. We understand the potential impact this may have on your logistics operation, and will communicate to our customers once we have more details from authorities. Our teams are on hand to support with your planning, should you need any assistance.”

Despite everyone on the internet suddenly becoming an expert in bridge design, ports, maritime law, shipping, and marine engineering, we don’t yet have the full story about what happened, but will update as we know more. Sadly, I also think it’s worth mentioning that there is zero evidence so far that this was in any way intentional, and the conspiracy theories you may be seeing online have no basis in any factual reality, at least based on what we know currently.

 

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Peter Andruskiewicz
Peter Andruskiewicz
18 days ago

So, looking at that map from marinetraffic…. This blue part here must obviously be the land. That’s what my degree in cartography taught me!

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
18 days ago

The ship lost propulsion and with ships/boats operating in rivers or bays loss of propulsion equates to loss of control. A rudder is not effective against currents and winds pushing a vessel through the water. They could have had full rudder control and still been toast.

Sklooner
Sklooner
18 days ago

Today I heard they suspect bad fuel

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
18 days ago

Is the switch to the redundant system supposeed to be instantaneous? After the lights go out the first time, you can see the black smoke like a backup diesel generator started. Maybe it hasn’t run in years and couldn’t get running?

A minute or so downtime in the middle of the ocean isn’t a big deal, but it sure as shit is in a busy port.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
18 days ago

My thinking as well. I’ve also seen emergency backup generators start, become overloaded and shut-down, then need to be started again which is what this kind of looks like based strictly on the video.
My guess is a failure at the absolute worst time, but one that could have been so very much worse. While the loss of 6 lives was tragic, in the immortal words of Travis Pastrana “When things went bad, they went as well as they could… While still going bad…”

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
18 days ago

“Hey! I’ll give you a hundred bucks to take the blame.”

https://youtu.be/-FfhlAYlLFI?si=vyPct1JP_htfEQuA&t=69

RataTejas
RataTejas
18 days ago

Are we sure it’s a Hyundai? Acting a lot more like a Ford leaving Cargo & Coffee

Marques Dean
Marques Dean
18 days ago
Reply to  RataTejas

The ship was manufactured by Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan,South Korea and fitted out in March 2015. Still a relatively new ship.

Segador
Segador
18 days ago

This appears, at least initially, to be one of those rare incidents where there may be no lessons to learn from it. It was a freak accident where a 100k ton ship lost power and steering, was traveling at close to 10 knots, and could not stop. There are few, if any, man-made objects that could survive that collision.

It’s bonkers, but insane things do happen.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
18 days ago

In case some of you aren’t well-versed in the American history, Francis Scott Key, which the destroyed bridge is named after, wrote The Star-Spangled Banner.

Go on, bring up the conspiracy theories…

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