“We will cease our active search and rescue efforts”: With these words, a representative of the US Coast Guard took away any hope that survivors could still be found after the collapse of a highway bridge in Baltimore, Maryland. Given the temperatures, after so many hours it is no longer expected that anyone will be rescued alive from the cold water.

The night before, a huge container ship had rammed one of the pillars of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The ship’s crew had made an emergency call before the collision, which may have saved lives – because officers on land stopped traffic and prevented more cars from getting onto the bridge. Nevertheless, large parts of the bridge collapsed as steel girders weighing tons were bent like thin wire due to the enormous force, and people and cars were dragged into the depths.

What exactly happened?

According to Maryland Governor Wes Moore, the Singapore-flagged, 290-meter-long container ship “Dali” was heading toward the bridge “at eight knots, i.e. at a rapid speed” – that’s around 15 kilometers per hour. The collision caused the four-lane, more than 2.5 kilometer long bridge to collapse. As part of the national traffic artery Interstate 695, it spanned the port of the east coast metropolis of Baltimore.

According to Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, there were eight construction workers on the bridge repairing potholes at the time of the accident. Two people were saved. According to US media, one person was initially taken to a hospital and released a short time later. The remaining six people were missing for many hours.

How did the search for the missing people go?

According to official information, the first emergency calls were received around 1:40 a.m. (local time) on Tuesday. A few minutes later, the first emergency services arrived at the scene of the accident. Throughout Tuesday, police and rescue workers searched for the six missing people in the water, from the air and on land. In addition to dozens of divers, infrared and sonar technology was also used. Initially, five vehicles were identified in the water, including three cars and a concrete mixer. But no people were found.

Finding the missing people alive became increasingly unlikely as time went on. US media reported, citing a local official, that the water at the site was around 15 meters deep and there were strong currents. The water temperature was therefore a little under ten degrees.

On Tuesday evening, the coast guard representative announced that the active search for survivors would be stopped. The current and debris in the water are dangerous for the rescue workers. You don’t want to put their health at risk. A police representative said ships would continue to sail overnight. Divers would then be sent into the water again early in the morning. However, it is only about the possible recovery of corpses.

How did the collision happen?

According to the authorities, there is no evidence of an intentional act or even a terrorist attack. US President Joe Biden spoke of a “terrible accident”. According to initial findings, a problem with the power supply could have been the cause. According to information from Singapore, there was probably a “temporary loss of propulsion”, which is why the ship was unable to maintain its course.

The chairwoman of the Transportation Safety Board NTSB, Jennifer Homendy, did not initially comment on the possible causes. “The NTSB doesn’t speculate, we provide facts,” she said. During the investigation, two dozen investigators would take a close look at the construction of the bridge as well as the ship and its history. The so-called ship data recorder is of particular importance.

The 22-member crew is safe, according to Singapore’s Maritime and Ports Authority. The Danish shipping company Maersk confirmed that it had rented the ship from the charter company Synergy Group and was transporting customers’ cargo on it.

Are there any environmental and economic impacts to be feared?

As US media reported, citing the Coast Guard, precautions were taken to keep environmental damage as low as possible. Accordingly, a sheen of oil could be seen on the water. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also announced that they are preparing for supply chain problems. These not only affect the region around Baltimore, “but the entire US economy.” The responsible authority suspended shipping traffic to the port until further notice, and larger freighters were diverted to a port in the neighboring state of Virginia.

As US President Biden explained, the Port of Baltimore is one of the most important maritime ports of call in the USA – especially for the import and export of cars and small trucks. According to this, around 850,000 vehicles are shipped via it every year. Around 15,000 jobs depend on it. Biden wants to finance the reconstruction of the bridge with federal money.

Asked whether Americans should worry about the stability of the country’s bridges, Buttigieg replied: “I don’t know of any bridge that can withstand the direct impact of a ship of this size.” However, one must draw the right conclusions from the accident and learn from it.

Would an accident like the one in Baltimore also be possible in Germany?

Experts say something like this can never be ruled out. But there are precautions that make such an accident unlikely in Germany. Bridge construction expert Josef Hegger from the Chair and Institute for Concrete Construction at RWTH Aachen University explained that the Federal Institute for Hydraulic Engineering sets rules as to what impact load pillars must withstand – depending on the shipping route and the size of the ships traveling there.

In addition, there are devices on the waterways similar to guard rails that are intended to prevent an impact. But the most important thing: Bridges in Germany are usually designed in such a way that ships cannot or only with difficulty collide with the pillars.