Cargo ship had engine maintenance in port before it collided with Baltimore bridge, officials say

Baltimore City Fire Boat 2 floats past the Dali container vessel after it struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge that collapsed into the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.

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The cargo ship that lost power and crashed into a bridge in Baltimore underwent “routine engine maintenance” in port beforehand, the U.S. Coast Guard said Wednesday, as divers recovered the bodies of two of six workers who plunged into the water when it collapsed.

The others were presumed dead, and officials said search efforts had been exhausted.

Investigators on Wednesday began collecting evidence from the vessel that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge the previous day. The bodies of the two men were located in the morning inside a red pickup submerged in about 25 feet (7.6 meters) of water near the bridge’s middle span, Col. Roland L. Butler Jr., superintendent of Maryland State Police, announced at an evening news conference.

He identified the men as Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, who was from Mexico and living in Baltimore, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, who was from Guatemala and living in Dundalk, Maryland.

The victims, who were part of a construction crew fixing potholes on the bridge, were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Butler said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore addressed their families in Spanish during the news conference, saying, “Estamos contigo, ahora y siempre,” which means, “we are with you, now and always.”

All search efforts have been exhausted, and based on sonar scans, authorities “firmly” believe the other vehicles with victims inside are encased in superstructures and concrete from the collapsed bridge, Butler said. Divers are to return to search for remains once the waters are clear of debris.

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath said authorities had been informed that the ship was going to undergo the maintenance.

Baltimore bridge collapse: Significant immediate-term impact on shipping, Control Risks says

“As far as the engine goes, we were not informed of any problems with the vessel,” he said. “We were informed that they were going to conduct routine engine maintenance on it while it was in port. And that’s the only thing we were informed about the vessel in that regard.”

The investigation ramped up as the Baltimore region reeled from the sudden loss of a major transportation link that’s part of the highway loop around the city. The disaster also closed the port, which is vital to the city’s shipping industry.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board boarded the ship to recover information from its electronics and paperwork and to do interviews with the captain and other crew members, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during a separate news conference. Twenty-three people, including two pilots, were on the ship when it crashed, she said.

The vessel was also carrying 56 containers of hazardous materials including corrosives, flammables and lithium ion batteries, Homendy said. She added that some containers were breached, and that a sheen on the water from those materials would be handled by authorities.

The agency also is reviewing the voyage data recorder recovered by the Coast Guard and building a timeline of what led to the crash, which federal and state officials have said appeared to be an accident.

The ship’s crew issued a mayday call early Tuesday, saying they had lost power and steering just minutes before striking one of the bridge’s columns .

At least eight people initially went into the water, and two of them were rescued Tuesday, officials said.

The debris complicated the search, according to a Homeland Security memo described to The Associated Press by a law enforcement official. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the document or the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gov. Moore said the divers faced dangerous conditions.

“They are down there in darkness where they can literally see about a foot in front of them,” Moore said, adding that they were also trying to navigate mangled metal.

One missing worker, a 38-year-old man from Honduras who came to the U.S. nearly two decades ago, was described by his brother as entrepreneurial and hard-working. He started last year with the company that was doing the bridge maintenance.

Video showed the ship moving at what Maryland’s governor said was about 9 mph (15 kph) toward the 1.6-mile (2.6-kilometer) bridge. Traffic was still crossing the span, and some vehicles appeared to escape with only seconds to spare. The crash caused the bridge to break and fall into the water within seconds.

Baltimore bridge collapse: How it could disrupt shipping along the East Coast

A last-minute warning from the ship allowed police just enough time to stop traffic on the highway. One officer parked sideways across the lanes and planned to drive onto the bridge to alert a construction crew once another officer arrived. But he did not get the chance as the powerless vessel barreled into the bridge.

Attention has also turned to the container ship Dali and its past.

Synergy Marine Group, which manages the ship, said the impact happened while it was under the control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely in and out of ports.

The ship, which was headed from Baltimore to Sri Lanka, is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd., and Danish shipping giant Maersk said it had chartered the vessel.

The vessel passed foreign port state inspections in June and September 2023. In the June 2023 inspection, a faulty monitor gauge for fuel pressure was rectified before the vessel departed, Singapore’s port authority said in a statement Wednesday.

The ship was traveling under a Singapore flag, and officials there said they will conduct their own investigation in addition to supporting U.S. authorities.

The sudden loss of a highway that carries 30,000 vehicles a day and the disruption of the vital port will affect not only thousands of dockworkers and commuters but also U.S. consumers who are likely to feel the impact of shipping delays .

“A lot of people don’t realize how important the port is just to everything,” said Cat Watson, who used the bridge to get to work every day and lives close enough that she was awakened by the collision. “We’re going to be feeling it for a very long time.”

The Port of Baltimore is a busy entry point for new vehicles made in Germany, Mexico, Japan and the United Kingdom, along with coal and farm equipment.

Ship traffic has been suspended indefinitely. Windward Maritime, a maritime risk-management company, said its data shows a large increase in ships that are waiting for a port to go to, with some anchored outside Baltimore or nearby Annapolis.

At the White House, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Biden administration was focused on reopening the port and rebuilding the bridge, which was completed in 1977. But he avoided putting a timeline on those efforts. He noted that the original bridge took five years to construct.

Buttigieg also planned to meet Thursday with supply chain officials.

The Baltimore bridge collapse was 'completely preventable', says Donald Broughton

Barges, including some with cranes, were on their way to Baltimore to help remove the wreckage, Gilreath said.

Homendy said the NTSB investigation could take 12 to 24 months but the agency may issue urgent safety recommendations sooner. A preliminary report should come in two to four weeks.

“It’s a massive undertaking for an investigation,” Homendy said. “It’s a very tragic event.”

From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure.

Baltimore bridge collapse: Significant immediate-term impact on shipping, Control Risks says

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