Key Bridge Collapse Probe Expected to Examine Cargo Ship’s Reported Loss of Power

Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed early Tuesday March 26, 2024, after a support column was struck by a vessel. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) — An investigation into the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge is expected to determine what caused this catastrophe and provide new details on why the outbound cargo ship Dali collided with the bridge.

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the independent federal agency would lead the investigation, with support from the U.S. Coast Guard. The NTSB is responsible for investigating major accidents involving marine traffic, highways, airplanes and railways.

Investigators will examine whether there were any deficiencies on the vessel or with the Key Bridge’s structure and design, Homendy said. The agency was “made aware” of reported power failures on the cargo ship, Homendy said, but NTSB investigators must “verify” whether it was a contributing factor.

NTSB investigations often take a year or more to complete. Final reports include “details about the accident, analysis of the factual data, conclusions and the probable cause of the accident, and the related safety recommendations,” the agency says on its website.

Gov. Wes Moore and federal authorities said there was no evidence that the collision was a terror attack.

Homendy said at a news conference that the focus is on ongoing search and rescue operations.

“Right now, it’s about people. It’s about families, and addressing the needs of those that were impacted,” Homendy said.

On Tuesday evening, Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders, the construction company with workers repairing potholes on the bridge, said the six missing workers were presumed dead.

A U.S. Coast Guard briefing report obtained by The Baltimore Sun declared the Key Bridge collapse a “major marine casualty” Tuesday morning. Those types of investigations are handled by the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety.

The briefing said “initial reports” suggested a harbor pilot and assistant who were on board reported “power issues, multiple alarms on the bridge and the loss of propulsion prior to the incident.”

The Coast Guard report said an unconfirmed number of people were still missing, while those onboard the vessel were safe and none had been injured.

The report said the pilot will undergo “post-accident drug and alcohol testing.”

Homendy said at Tuesday afternoon’s news conference that the vessel data recorder will be “critical” to the investigation. She said agency investigators had chosen not to immediately board the vessel to secure the recorder, to “allow some time for the search and recovery,” but added that she expected to have more information Wednesday.

Similar to the “black boxes” found on airplanes, voyage data recorders can help investigators to identify the cause of an accident.

Homendy largely declined to answer specific questions about potential causes or contributing factors, including whether the vessel dropped anchor and whether there should have been additional protective structures around the bridge piers. She also declined to say whether the bridge had been flagged for safety deficiencies in the past, saying that it would “take time to dig through.”

“It’s a very meticulous process, where they have to dig through a lot of information,” Homendy said of potential past safety deficiencies. “It will not be something that we will be able to verify while on scene.”

Under federal regulations, major marine casualties are incidents that lead to the loss of six or more lives, the loss of a vessel weighing 100 tons or more, property damage above $500,000 or a “serious threat” to life, property or the environment.

The NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety is charged with determining the likely cause of each major casualty event and identifying safety recommendations.

Since the Dali was Singapore flagged, Homendy said she was in contact with her counterpart from that Southeast Asian city-state, who planned to send personnel to Baltimore on Wednesday. The country also would be sending maritime and port regulators, she said.

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