'Heroes'; police stopped traffic before bridge fall in Baltimore; workers could have died

BALTIMORE, Maryland, USA — In the middle of the night, the radio broadcast a 12-second warning: a huge freighter had lost its direction and was heading toward the bridge Francis Scott Key.

Within about 90 seconds, the police officers responded that they had obtained stop traffic on the bridge in both directions. One of them said he was about to approach to alert a construction crew.

But it was too late. Without steering and loaded with large containers, the ship crashed into one of the pillars.

“The whole bridge just fell,” said a frantic officer. “(…) To whoever, to everyone… the entire bridge just collapsed.”

When the container ship Dalí crashed into the pillar around 1:30 a.m., it caused a long stretch of the bridge — a key piece of the region's transportation infrastructure — to collapse onto the Patapsco River. Six people are believed to have died and the loss of the bridge is expected to disrupt traffic in the area and activity at a vital commercial port.

At least eight people fell into the water. Two survived and the other six, all identified as part of a construction crew that was filling potholes in the road, are missing. The search operation is scheduled to resume on Wednesday morning.

Among the missing are Guatemalans, Hondurans and Mexicans, diplomats from the three countries said. The Honduran was identified as Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval.

Federal and state officials said the crash appeared to be an incident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what happened, and vessel arrivals and departures from the Port of Baltimore have been suspended indefinitely.

Capt. Michael Burns Jr., of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy, noted that bringing a ship into port and out in restricted waters with limited room to maneuver is “one of the most technically difficult and demanding things we do.”

“There are really few things scarier than losing power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a boat loses propulsion and steering, “it is truly at the mercy of the wind and current.”

A video showed the ship moving at a speed that, according to the governor, Wes Moore, was about 8 knots — about 15 kilometers per hour (9 miles per hour) — towards the 2.6 km (1.6 mile) long bridge. There was still traffic crossing the bridge at the time, and some vehicles seemed to escape the tragedy for just a few seconds. The impact caused the structure to break and fall into the water within seconds, and the remains could be seen protruding into the river later in the day.

Police noted that there is no evidence that anyone else fell into the sea besides the workers, although the possibility was not ruled out.

An executive of the company that employed the disappeared, Brawner Buildersexplained that at the time of the collapse they were working in the center of the bridge.

“This was completely unforeseen,” said Jeffrey Pritzker, the company's executive vice president. “We don't know what else to say. “We take great pride in safety, and we have cones, signs, lights, barriers and markers.”

Jesús Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said they told him they were on a break and that some were sitting in their trucks when the bridge collapsed.

“I know I was there a month ago, and I know what it feels like when the trucks go by,” he said. “Imagine knowing that it is falling. “It's so hard that you wouldn't know what to do.”

Father Ako Walker, a Catholic priest at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, said he spent time with relatives of the missing workers as they waited for news of their loved ones.

“You can see the pain in their faces,” he said.

Rescuers pulled two people from the water. and one of them was treated at a hospital and released hours later.

The accident occurred well before the busy morning rush hour on the bridge, which last year was used by 12 million vehicles.

Between 1960 and 2015, 35 major bridge collapses occurred worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Water Transport Infrastructure Association.

Tuesday's incident is almost certain to cause a logistical nightmare on the US East Coast for months, or perhaps years, by shutting down shipping traffic at the port of Baltimore, a major distribution center.

Maritime traffic suspended after Baltimore Bridge collapse

The state secretary of transportation, Paul Wiedefeldsaid that maritime traffic in and out of the port was suspended until further notice, although trucks will continue to access the infrastructure.

“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire region, as well as the entire East Coast,” said Johnny State Senator Ray Salling.

For his part, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it was too early to offer an estimate of how long it will take to clear the canal, which is about 15 meters (50 feet) deep. The president, Joe Biden, indicated that he plans to travel to Baltimore soon and that he expects the federal government to assume the full cost of reconstruction.

Synergy Marine Group — the vessel's management company — said the impact occurred while it was under the control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide ships into and out of ports safely. One of the crew was treated at a hospital for a minor injury, it added in a statement Wednesday.

The vessel is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and Danish shipping giant Maersk said it had chartered it.

The 300-meter (985-foot) long Dali was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is sailing under the Singapore flag, according to Marine Traffic data.

The container ship had passed port inspections in June and September 2023. In the first, a faulty fuel pressure gauge was rectified before setting sail, Singapore's port authority said in a statement on Wednesday.