It was still dark when the container ship “Dali” suddenly lost propulsion during the night near the US metropolis of Baltimore. The heavily loaded freighter rams into a pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and causes the four-lane, more than 2.5 kilometer long car bridge to collapse.

Only at sunrise does the extent of the collapse become truly visible: the arched struts of the bridge, which spanned the port of the East Coast metropolis as part of the national traffic artery Interstate 695, rise out of the water like a skeleton.

After the bridge collapsed in the US state of Maryland, police and rescue workers continued to search for survivors from the air and with divers in the water. According to official information, six people are still missing and two have already been rescued. US President Joe Biden spoke of a “terrible accident” and promised extensive financial help to rebuild the bridge. The responsible port authority had previously suspended shipping traffic there until further notice. Apparently a distress signal from the ship’s crew helped prevent something worse from happening.

Ship’s crew reported power problem

According to initial findings, there was a problem with the electricity on the ship. However, the crew managed to warn the authorities in Maryland with an emergency signal that the ship had lost control. The officials were able to stop traffic so that more cars didn’t get onto the bridge, “which undoubtedly saved lives,” Biden said. There is no evidence of a terrorist attack or an intentional act, everything points to an accident. An FBI investigator had previously made a similar statement.

It is assumed that the victims were construction workers, said Transport Minister Wiedefeld. The missing people are being actively searched for. The construction workers on the bridge had therefore repaired potholes; it was not construction work on the structure of the bridge. Engineers are on site to examine the condition of the bridge and the debris field more closely.

In addition to air and water assistance, authorities said infrared and sonar technology was also used for the rescue operation. In this way, five vehicles were identified under water, including three cars and a concrete mixer. Authorities have not yet said whether there were people in the vehicles.

Reporter: Bridge “basically completely disappeared”

According to official information, the first emergency calls were received around 1:40 a.m. (local time). Emergency services were on site as early as 1:50 a.m. Surveillance camera videos shared on social media showed the ship ramming one of the support pillars, causing large parts of the bridge to collapse into the water.

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 reportedly just under ten degrees early in the morning.

A CBS reporter on site reported, visibly shocked, that the bridge had “basically completely disappeared.” The bridge is the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spans the Patapsco River. The bridge is named after the author of the US national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” and was opened in 1977.

“Temporary loss of drive” causes price loss

There were no injuries on the ship itself, the New York Times reported. The almost 290 meter long ship named “Dali” was supposed to sail from Baltimore to Sri Lanka under the Singapore flag, the newspaper reported, citing the coast guard. The ship, operated by the charter company Synergy Group, was chartered by Maersk on a temporary basis, according to a statement from the Danish shipping company Maersk. Cargo from Maersk customers is said to have been transported on it.

According to the information, there were no Maersk crew or personnel on the ship. Maersk is the world’s second largest container shipping company behind MSC. The ship was heading toward the bridge “at eight knots, very fast speed,” said Maryland Governor Wes Moore.

As US media quoted the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore as saying, there was a “temporary loss of propulsion” and the ship was unable to maintain its course. The crew had anchored before the impact as part of its emergency measures, the statement said. The crew is a 22-person crew that is complete and safe. The ship itself held its position after the accident and was in a stable condition.

Not an isolated case

An accident of this kind is rare, but not an isolated case worldwide: as recently as February 2024, five people died in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong after a freighter rammed a car bridge and caused it to partially collapse. In Brazil, a nearly 900-meter-long road bridge over the Moju River collapsed in April 2019 after a ferry rammed one of the massive pillars.

In January 2012, a ship loaded with rocket parts for the US Air Force and the NASA space agency tore a gap more than 90 meters long in a road bridge in the US state of Kentucky. The captain had taken the wrong route under the bridge, which was only designated for water sports enthusiasts and not for heavy ships.

Similar incident in Germany unlikely

According to an expert in Germany, several safety measures when building bridges over waterways make a serious collapse like the one in Baltimore very unlikely. “The requirements for static safety for a bridge are much higher than for a residential building,” said Prof. Josef Hegger from the Chair and Institute for Concrete Construction at RWTH Aachen to the German Press Agency. As a university lecturer, structural engineer and test engineer, he is an expert in bridge construction. Although such an accident can never be ruled out, the highest level of safety can be achieved by combining various design measures.

“The pillar must have a certain level of resilience so that it does not collapse with a slight impact,” explained the expert. The Federal Institute for Hydraulic Engineering, for example, uses fixed 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 also devices on waterways similar to guard rails that are intended to prevent an impact.