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Timely mayday saves many in Baltimore

ByM Kalyanraman, Baltimore/ Mumbai
Mar 28, 2024 06:46 AM IST

The 2.6km-long bridge collapsed within seconds, plunging eight construction workers into the icy depths of the Patapsco River and bringing one of the most important ports in the northeast US to a grinding halt

It was the middle of the night when a dispatcher’s warning crackled over the radio: A massive cargo ship, manned entirely by an Indian crew, had lost its steering capabilities and was heading toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge lies on top of the container ship Dali in Baltimore, Maryland, on Wednesday. (AFP)
The collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge lies on top of the container ship Dali in Baltimore, Maryland, on Wednesday. (AFP)

Within about 90 seconds, police officers responded that they had managed to stop vehicle traffic over the Baltimore bridge in both directions. One said he was about to drive onto the bridge to alert a construction crew who were filling potholes on the bridge.

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But it was too late. Powerless and laden with huge containers, the 985-foot-long vessel, named Dali, smashed into a support pillar.

The 2.6km-long bridge collapsed within seconds, plunging eight construction workers into the icy depths of the Patapsco River and bringing one of the most important ports in the northeast US to a grinding halt.

In his remarks from the White House, US President Joe Biden praised them for their prompt action.

“Personnel on board the ship were able to alert the Maryland department of transportation that they had lost control of their vessel…As a result, local authorities were able to close the bridge to traffic before the bridge was struck, which undoubtedly saved lives,” Biden said.

Video showed the ship moving at what Baltimore Governor Wes Moore said was about 15 kmph towards the bridge. There still was traffic moving across the span, and some vehicles appeared to escape with only seconds to spare. The collision caused the span to break and fall into the water within seconds, and jagged remnants could be seen jutting up from the water later in the day.

Aboard the ship, there appeared to be two blackouts just before the collision, when the ship was manoeuvring – the operation for entering or exiting ports or passing through channels and rivers. A blackout leads to a loss of engine power instantly, so the ship had no means to move on its own, nor any means to force a stop. Typically, two generators are operational to provide backup power in case one generator shuts off. Backup arrangements are often in place so that recovery from blackouts is quick.

On Dali, the power coming on indicated that there was recovery from the first. Thick black smoke spurted from the funnel, videos showed, meaning that the generators had indeed started. But within seconds, the ship sank into darkness again – a sign that the generators too had shut down. By the time power was restored, it was too late.

US officials said the Singapore-flagged ship suffered a “power issue” and ruled out sabotage or terrorism. Ship engineers speculate that the fault could have been in the fuel system which is common to all generators.

Ship staff are also known to crib about fuel quality. More so since a sulphur cap came into force in 2020. Low-sulphur fuels are often distillates as opposed to residuals of the past – meaning they are more refined. But refinement comes with the risk of clogging of pipelines and devices or build-up of sludge in tanks.

The modern merchant ship has multiple systems that are often interconnected and individual glitches can often line up and create a domino effect. Investigations are still on into what exactly led to Dali’s crash, including whether dirty fuel had any role to play.

Dali had two pilots on board – these are local experts who know the terrain thoroughly and help steer ships. They operate under the master’s command, who is ultimately responsible for any accidents.

The pilot of the ship, the head of a trade association for maritime pilots said, tried to slow it down before the crash.

Clay Diamond, executive director of the American Pilots’ Association, told Associated Press he has been in close contact with officials from the Association of Maryland Pilots who described to him what happened as the ship approached the bridge. He said when the ship was a few minutes out, it lost all power, including to its engines.

The pilot immediately ordered the rudder hard to port to keep the ship from turning right and ordered the port anchor be dropped, which it was, Diamond said. The pilot also contacted a dispatch office to get the bridge shut down.

Diamond said confirmed that when the lights came on, emergency generators had indeed kicked in, but not the ship’s propulsion.

A statement from the ship’s owners and managers said the crew was largely safe.

“We confirm the safety of all crew members and two pilots aboard ‘Dali’, with one minor injury reported. The injured crew member has been treated and discharged from hospital,” a statement by owners Grace Ocean Pte Ltd and ship manager of Dali, posted on the website of ship management company Synergy Marine Group.

“Investigations by the coast guard marine board of investigations and US national transportation safety board chair have started. Meanwhile, the Baltimore port, which one of the largest ports in the region, has been shut down, and Dali will have to be send for repairs by salvagers,” Synergy’s representative in London told HT on Wednesday.

Synergy had said the crew is “All Indian, 22 in total.” Its representative told HT there was no information on their repatriation yet. The name and other details of the crew have not been released

The name and other details of the crew have not been released.

Captain Michael Burns Jr of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy told the AP that bringing a ship into or out of ports in restricted waters with limited room to manoeuvre is “one of the most technically challenging and demanding things that we do.”

“So there really is few things that are scarier than a loss of power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a ship loses propulsion and steering, “then it’s really at the mercy of the wind and the current.”

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