Baltimore Bridge Crash is a Warning for Other Ports


When the massive cargo ship Dali rammed the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore, sending the span plunging into the Patapsco River and killing six workers, it sent shock waves through the East Coast as shippers scrambled to re-route millions of tons of cargo from the nation’s ninth largest port.

As investigations by state and federal agencies move into high gear, crews are preparing for the delicate and dangerous tasks of recovering the bodies of the drowned workers. Then they will begin cutting up the collapsed bridge and removing it from the river.  It may be weeks before the harbor is reopened and years before the vital highway link is restored.

For retired Coast Guard Adm. Steve Metruck, now Executive Director of the Port of Seattle, the collision rekindled memories of a bridge disaster in Florida 44 years ago. During a severe storm on May 9, 1980, the freighter Summit Venture crashed in the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay. A 1,200-foot section of the bridge collapsed, sending 35 people in cars and a bus to their deaths.

The Coast Guard investigation found human errors at fault, but also concluded the bridge needed stronger structural protection to withstand a vessel collision. As a result, bridge design codes mandated protective structures to better protect bridges against vessel strikes. These improvements came too late for the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which was built in 1977.

“The Key Bridge accident makes me wonder what if any advances in harbor operations of bridge protections had been put in place,” said Metruck, the former commander of the Coast Guard’s Mid-Atlantic region, including Baltimore.

For Seattleites, the collision was eerily similar to the crash of the freighter Chavez into the West Seattle Bridge in 1978. The damaged bridge was closed to auto traffic for six years and led to the construction of a high-level span over the Duwamish River.

Metruck says there are too many unknowns to speculate now about the causes of the Baltimore crash. He and other industry insiders say it is critical to understand the chain of events that led to the vessel losing power at a critical point near the span, without any assistance by tugs.

He said investigators must assemble a giant puzzle probing many factors: the maintenance of the ship’s engines and electrical systems, the actions of the crew and pilot in the seconds after they lost power, and weather – as well as whether the bridge should have been better protected against vessel strikes.

It is clear that the rapid increase in size and weight of vessels, coupled with constant pressure by cargo owners to move goods faster and cheaper, is accelerating the risks for vessels and ports.

Officials of the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), which manages the Seattle and Tacoma seaports, do not anticipate a surge of container vessels here because of Baltimore’s port closure.  That is because Baltimore largely handles vehicles and bulk cargo is destined for East Coast markets. The primary markets for the Seattle and Tacoma ports are in the Midwest.

Seattle and Tacoma harbors enjoy deeper water, wide channels and no bridge obstructions for container traffic. That’s not the case for Baltimore, where the river is just 50 feet deep. The U.S. Coast Guard manages a robust vessel-traffic control system for Puget Sound, local pilots steer vessels in and out of the harbor, and there are multiple tug companies to help ships in and out of port.

John Wolfe, NWSA executive director, said that because of Puget Sound’s strong safety infrastructure, “our risk is minimal’’ from a crash like Baltimore’s. “I don’t have any great concerns.  We have a very safe gateway.”

The complete loss of power on modern containerships is rare, but the accident is raising safety questions throughout the industry as the vessels grow much larger and faster than ever before. “I would imagine the nation, at the national level, is going raise these safety questions. What comes of this, I don’t know,” Wolfe said.

As the West Seattle and Florida accidents highlight, vessel collisions with bridges are rare but their consequences can be devastating in terms of human lives and economic disruption.

In 2007, the Hanjin Busan container ship was departing San Francisco in dense fog when it crashed into a San Francisco Bay Bridge support.  The bridge survived, but the resulting fuel spill soiled 26 miles of beaches.  The drug-impaired vessel pilot was convicted of federal environmental offenses and sentenced to 10 months in jail. The ship’s owner paid $44 million in fines.

The pandemic taught us all important lessons about how our modern economy depends on the international supply chain with a global network on ships, planes, and trains. “The accident really brought home the importance of ports to the local economies,” said Deanna Keller, a Port of Tacoma commissioner.

Most U.S. and Canadian ports are engaged in a space race to expand their cargo terminals to attract the very large vessels now in the global shipping market.  Seattle and Tacoma, operating as the NWSA, are no exception. The recently completed $500 million expansion of Terminal 5 in West Seattle boasts deeper berths, stronger docks, and larger cranes.

The heart of that marine cargo system is the modern containership, a vessel type born in the 1950s. The ships make possible efficient movement of goods around the world from factory to market in standard 20- or 40-foot steel containers.  In the drive to cut costs and speed delivery, the shipping lines are building faster and ever-larger ships that dwarf those built just a few years ago.

The Maersk Dali, launched in 2014, is 984 feet in length and carries up to 10,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo. (The ship was not owned by Maersk, but was chartered, like a short-term rental. It wasn’t their ship or crew.) It is only a middling ship compared to the monsters rolling out of the shipyards today: The MSC Irina is 1,200 feet long and carries up to 24,000 TEUs.

What we know about the accident so far is limited.  The vessel left the dock at Seagirt Terminal accompanied by two tugs. As usual, the tugs departed when the ship reached the open channel. Suddenly its lights flicker off, then on again, then off. Black smoke pours from the stacks, indicating engine problems, just before crashing into the bridge. Just three minutes have passed after the ship lost power.

Many questions arise from the incident relevant not only to Baltimore but ports around the country. Among those questions, industry sources say, is whether the fuel powering the ship was contaminated and if earlier engine problems had been repaired before departure.  Investigators will want to review Coast Guard vessel safety inspection reports that may have identified mechanical or electrical problems.

Critically, the two tugs that accompanied the ship from its dock had turned away as is normal when vessels reach the open channel.  Many vessels crossed under the bridge with no difficulties since 1977 – until one did not. Like many new ships the Dali has a bow thruster to help maneuver, but only when the ship has power.

The accident will likely result in public pressure to mandate that tugs accompany big ships under the bridge into open water.

“We went wrong by simply equipping ships with bow and stern thrusters that we use in lieu of tugs to maneuver in and out of the ports,” said Capt. Ashok Pandey, an associate professor of maritime business at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, quoted in USA Today. “When we are getting into ports like Baltimore, within a few miles of the bridge, that is too important an asset that we must think of protecting it by all means possible. And we can do that. We can easily do that.”

Tugs are costly and could potentially slow the departures, which might draw opposition from vessel owners.

But there is a local example that might provide some guidance on this issue. In 1999, the state — over the objections of some vessel operators and oil companies – authorized a rescue tug to accompany large oil tankers that regularly ply the Strait of Juan De Fuca and Rosario Strait headed for Cherry Point and Canadian refineries.

Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman, an environmental activist who long pushed for tug protection for oil ships in Puget Sound, said the Baltimore accident should prompt a re-evaluation of safety measures around big container ships.  The ships carry thousands of gallons of fuel. “We should treat them like tankers.  Why aren’t we treating them with the risk they pose?  This is a no-brainer,” Felleman said.

Prevention should be the goal, said Charlie Costanzo, who heads the organization representing Puget Sound vessel pilots. “The goal is to prevent ships from hitting bridges. There is no way to completely protect everything that a ship might hit,” he added.

With so much of the Northwest and national economies dependent on ocean-going transportation, the outcome of the Francis Scott Key Bridge investigation likely will have ramifications not only in Baltimore but around the country. Inevitably there will be a debate about whether the container ships have outgrown the safety systems in place to protect ports.

“The elements of our essential marine transportation system are complex. Each of them has some risk reduction measures in place,’’ said Metruck, the Seattle port director.  “It will be important for a thorough investigation to determine the root cause of the accident, and if something needs to be changed.”

Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.


  1. Excellent piece, Mike. Great use of local people/examples to answer many questions I’ve had about the Dali disaster.

  2. Good article, Mike. The simple reality is that container ships have grown enormously larger in the last 20 years, and consequent risks have grown as well.

    • Thanks, Charlie. For those who don’t know him, Charlie is a former Port of Seattle major capital development manager and marine-division director, and a mariner aboard cargo ships.


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