When Bridges Fail: The Hidden Dangers and Catastrophic Consequences of Infrastructure Collapses

In the early morning of March 26th, the historic Francis Scott Key bridge dramatically collapsed when a massive cargo ship leaving the port of Baltimore lost power and steering and rammed into one of the bridge’s crucial support columns.

In an instant, the 1.6-mile-long continuous truss-style bridge folded like a balsa wood model and toppled into the Patapsco River, plunging several vehicles into the 50-ft deep water.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called it “an unthinkable tragedy.”

Rescuers quickly pulled two people from the water, but the disaster left six unaccounted for. By the following day, the search effort had been changed from rescue to recovery, as all were presumed dead. Nearly six weeks later, on May 1st, recovery crews pulled a fifth body from the wreckage.

According to Paul Wiedefeld, the state’s transportation secretary, the six missing individuals were part of a construction crew fixing potholes near the middle of the bridge.

Father Ako Walker, a Catholic priest who comforted families of the missing workers, said he could “see the pain etched on their faces” as they waited for news of their loved ones.

In the darkness, just ahead of the 1:30 a.m. crash, the ship’s crew had issued a mayday call. When the vessel was observed barreling toward the bridge at a rapid speed, with lights flickering on and off and puffs of smoke billowing, local authorities had only moments to act, halting most traffic across the bridge.

The Dali ship is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and managed by Synergy Marine Group. It had been chartered by Danish shipping giant Maersk and was headed from Baltimore to Sri Lanka. The vessel, which is almost 1000 feet long and over 150 feet wide, was traveling out of port at a speed of about 10 mph. The New York Times said the “force of ship impact was on the scale of a rocket launch.” Residents nearby said the impact felt like an earthquake.

According to shipping information system Equasis, an early last summer inspection revealed a problem with the ship’s machinery, but more recent inspections did not indicate any issues.

Francis Scott Key Bridge served a major shipping port and busy thoroughfare, used by 12 million vehicles last year. Since it opened in 1977, the critical and beloved bridge stretched across the river at the entrance to the busy harbor leading to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area and the entire East Coast,” state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling told the AP.

Critical Need for Infrastructure Improvements

The Baltimore catastrophe underscored an urgent need for “bridge reform and international standards for cargo ships,” according to infrastructure and engineering policy experts, ABC News said.

Data from the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure reveals that between 1960 and 2015, 35 major bridge collapses worldwide resulted from ship or barge collisions.

Immediately following the Baltimore accident, Rick Geddes, infrastructure policy expert and director of the Cornell University Infrastructure Policy Program, told ABC, “This disaster reveals how exposed America’s critical infrastructure is to sudden and devastating accidents as well as intentional destruction… I think the bridge was not designed to take the force and the mass of an enormous cargo ship directly hitting one of the pylons.”

“I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a news conference, indicating that there was no way to know yet how long it would take to clear the channel and restore the port’s use.

Although “modern protective measures” such as “fenders” meant to protect vital structural elements from passing vessels exist, the Coast Guard said the Francis Scott Key Bridge was built before pier protections were standardized. At the time of the accident, it was not yet known whether the bridge had fenders.

California Bridge Collapse Lawyers

Aitken * Aitken * Cohn has successfully represented victims of catastrophic bridge accidents. In Gillespie vs. Clark Construction Group, Walsh Construction et al., AAC led the effort to secure a $38.5 million settlement for a construction worker who suffered severe and permanent traumatic brain injury and other life-long disabilities after a Corona overpass collapsed during Construction in 2015. Nine people working beneath the bridge deck were injured, several of them critically. Six years of investigation and litigation by our legal team revealed critical structural flaws and design defects in the project.

AAC also successfully obtained a settlement for San Clemente school teacher Kelli Groves and her two daughters, 10-year-old Sage and 10-month-old Mylo. A tractor-trailer forced them into a bridge railing, which then careened over the bridge’s edge, leaving Kelli and her children precariously perched above a 100-foot drop into Nojoqui Creek canyon. The 18-wheeler crashed through the guardrail into the canyon below, bursting into flames upon impact. The BMW Kelli was driving ended up as a mass of tangled steel entwined in the concrete girders on the outer side of the bridge’s ledge.

Written on behalf of Aitken*Aitken*Cohn