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Baltimore radio dispatch to stop bridge traffic may have saved lives

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Less than a minute before Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed from the impact of a colliding cargo ship, a first responder on emergency radio answered the crew's mayday call by sending officers to halt traffic onto the bridge.

Without their swift response, the scale of the disaster, which took the lives of six bridge repairmen, may have been far greater, even during the early morning hours when the crash occurred and vehicular traffic is relatively light.

"There's a ship approaching that just lost their steering," an unidentified responder said, according to a recording of Maryland Transportation Authority Police posted by the website Broadcastify. "So until they get that under control, we've got to stop all traffic."

The police radio recording sheds light on how officers managed to keep traffic off the bridge just before it fell down, but were unable to reach the construction crew fixing potholes on the bridge in time to evacuate them.

Federal safety officials on Wednesday revealed that the freighter's pilot had radioed for tugboat help and reported a power loss minutes before the 1:27 a.m (0527 GMT) collision on Tuesday, citing audio from the ship's "black box" data recorder.

About a minute and a half after the crash, the responder mentioned the construction workers on the bridge.

"I'm not sure where - there's a crew out there," he said. "You might want to notify whoever the foreman is, see if we can get him off the bridge temporarily."

Another unidentified responder replied that once another official arrived to hold traffic, he would go "grab the workers" on the bridge.

But a second later, a third responder urgently alerted the group that the bridge was gone.

"The whole bridge just fell down," that officer said. "The whole bridge just collapsed."

Divers on Wednesday recovered the remains of two of the six workers missing since the crumbling bridge tossed them into the water. The other four are presumed dead.

Maryland State Police Colonel Roland Butler said a red pickup truck with the bodies of the two men was found in about 25 feet (7.62 meters) of water near the midsection of the fallen bridge.

(Reporting by Julia Harte and Ted Hesson; Editing by Howard Goller)