Baltimore bridge collapse: Ship collision mayday call ‘saved lives’

Baltimore bridge collapse: Ship collision mayday call ‘saved lives’

A mayday alert from the ship which crashed into a Baltimore bridge on Tuesday morning allowed the authorities to block traffic and save lives, officials said.

Speaking on Tuesday, Maryland governor Wes Moore said the Dali crew issued the alert immediately after the ship lost power and before it struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, destroying the structure.

“We’re thankful that between the ‘mayday’ and collapse, we had officials who were able to begin to stop the flow of traffic so more cars were not up on the bridge,” he said.

“These people are heroes. They saved lives last night.”

Six construction workers on the bridge, said to be “hard-working, humble men” from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, were missing after the crash.

They were presumed dead, their company said late on Tuesday, due to the time spent in the icy waters below the bridge.

Maryland Govenor Wes Moore (left) speaks during a news conference (AP)
Maryland Govenor Wes Moore (left) speaks during a news conference (AP)

The crash happened in the middle of the night, long before the busy morning commute on the bridge that stretches 1.6 miles and was used by 12 million vehicles last year.

Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders, said the crew was working in the middle of the bridge when it came down.

No bodies have been recovered, and rescue crews were continuing the search on Tuesday night.

“This was so completely unforeseen," Mr Pritzker said.

"We don't know what else to say. We take such great pride in safety, and we have cones and signs and lights and barriers and flaggers. But we never foresaw that the bridge would collapse."

Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks when the bridge went down.

"I know that a month ago, I was there, and I know what it feels like when the trailers pass," Campos said. "Imagine knowing that is falling. It is so hard, one would not know what to do."

Rescuers pulled two people out of the water. One person was treated at a hospital and discharged hours later.

Multiple vehicles also went into the river, although authorities did not believe anyone was inside.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

"It looked like something out of an action movie," said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, calling it "an unthinkable tragedy."

A police dispatcher put out a call just before the collapse saying a ship had lost its steering and asked officers to stop all traffic, according to Maryland Transportation Authority first responder radio traffic.

One officer who stopped traffic radioed that he was going to drive onto the bridge to alert the construction crew.

But seconds later, a frantic officer said: "The whole bridge just fell down. Start, start whoever, everybody ... the whole bridge just collapsed."

On a separate radio channel for maintenance and construction workers, someone said officers were stopping traffic because a ship had lost steering. There was no follow-up order to evacuate, and 30 seconds later the bridge fell and the channel went silent.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaking at a news conference near the site, said it was too soon to estimate how long it will take to clear the channel, which is about 50 feet deep.

"I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size," he said.

Synergy Marine Group — which manages the ship, called the Dali — confirmed the vessel hit a pillar of the bridge at about 1:30 a.m. while in control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely into ports. The ship is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd.

Synergy said all crew members and the two pilots on board were accounted for, and there were no reports of any injuries.

The bridge spans the Patapsco River at the entrance to a busy harbour, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

All vessel traffic into and out of the port has been suspended until further notice, though the facility was still open to trucks.

President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore and intends for the federal government to pick up the entire cost of rebuilding.

"This is going to take some time," Mr Biden said. "The people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt."

The Dali was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and flying under a Singapore flag, according to data from Marine Traffic.