The Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse
Lead Editorial

The Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse

On March 26, 2024, at about 1:27 in the morning, a cargo vessel, the 984.3-foot-long Singapore-flagged Dali, reportedly lost power while transiting out of Baltimore Harbor. It struck a support column on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland. The result was that a portion of the enormous bridge collapsed, and the vessel was damaged. The vessel remains in the vicinity of the bridge pier. Eight construction workers were repairing potholes on the bridge at the time of the incident. They were knocked into the Patapsco River below. Two were rescued, four bodies were eventually recovered and two more remain missing and are presumed dead.

Access to the Port of Baltimore remains limited since the collapse, and a delicate, complex salvage effort is underway in the river. Since the collapse, the FBI and NTSB have both launched separate investigations. The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board says the agency is focusing on the ship’s electrical system in its investigation into the crash.

“The FBI is investigating what led up to the Key Bridge collapse in a separate investigation, according to reporting by the Washington Post. The FBI said two weeks after the incident that it had agents on the Dali, which was still at the accident site. “[The] FBI is present aboard the cargo ship Dali conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity,” the agency said. “There is no other public information available, and we will have no further comment.”

An unclassified memo issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said the ship reportedly lost propulsion at the time of the crash. The NTSB identified Hyundai as the manufacturer of the ship’s power and brake system. The agency expects the preliminary report on the collapse to be released by the first week of May.

A month after the accident, more than 1,300 tons of steel have been salvaged and four smaller shipping channels were open but those still only allow a fraction of the pre-collapse activity to get in and out of the Port of Baltimore. “We are still a long way from getting the size and commercial back to where it was before the collapse,” said Maryland Governor Wes Moore a few weeks after the incident.

“Today was an important milestone in the process of beginning to pull the wreckage out, beginning to open channels. We know we still have work to do,” the governor said when the first channel was opened. Moore said untangling the mangled mess of debris remains dangerous.

“We’re talking about a situation where a portion of the bridge beneath the water has been described by Unified Command as ‘chaotic wreckage,'” Moore said. “Every time someone goes into the water, they are taking a risk. Every time we move a piece of the structure, the situation could become even more dangerous. We have to move fast but we cannot be careless.”

A group called the Unified Command, comprised of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland State Police, the Singapore company that managed the striking ship and others, is working at the site to coordinate the disaster response.

A lawsuit filed by the city of Baltimore maintains “there were no high winds, visual obstructions or any reason to believe disaster was about to occur” when the ship crashed into the bridge. The lawsuit alleges alarms showing an inconsistent power supply on the Dali sounded off before leaving the port, but it continued on its voyage anyway, the documents state, despite its unseaworthy conditions. The city also accuses the crew of being incompetent and inattentive to its duties, adding allegations of failing to maintain or use several pieces of equipment, including the ship’s engine and propulsion system.

The Coast Guard was able to download the voyage data recorder which has been sent to the National Transportation Safety Board to be analyzed.

As we await the results of the investigations, it is not too soon to consider the security risks and implications of the incident.

First up is the structural integrity of bridges. Regular inspection, maintenance and structural integrity assessment of bridges is a must. Security of bridges extends beyond the cyberthreats which is a current focus. Infrastructure must be top of mind and old bridges should be beefed up to prevent an occurrence from destroying another bridge.

The incident emphasized the need for well-planned emergency response protocols. Effective coordination among emergency responders, law enforcement and other relevant agencies is essential for addressing such emergencies quickly and minimizing their impact.

Next, enhancing public awareness about safety measures during emergencies should be reviewed. Evacuation procedures and alternative routes should be clearly defined.

Conducting thorough risk assessments and implementing appropriate mitigation measures can help prevent accidents and minimize their consequences. This ties in with potential vulnerabilities in infrastructure and implementing measures to address them as mentioned earlier.

Leveraging technology for real-time monitoring of infrastructure can help detect potential issues before they escalate into problems. Implementing advanced monitoring systems, such as sensors and surveillance cameras, is one way to enable proactive intervention.

Communication and information sharing among the relevant stakeholders, including government agencies, emergency responders and the public, are vital for managing crises effectively. Timely dissemination of accurate information can help prevent panic and facilitate coordinated response efforts.

And finally, continual improvement is imperative. Reviewing and updating security protocols and procedures based on lessons learned from past incidents is essential. This ensures that security measures remain effective and adaptable to evolving threats and challenges.