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Major Baltimore bridge collapses after ship collision

AFP . Baltimore
26 Mar 2024 20:32:43 | Update: 26 Mar 2024 20:32:43
Major Baltimore bridge collapses after ship collision
- Courtesy/Flickr

A major bridge in the US city of Baltimore collapsed early Tuesday after being struck by a container ship, sending multiple vehicles and people plunging into the frigid harbor below.

Dramatic night time footage showed a 300-metre vessel hitting a pylon of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, bringing most of the steel-built structure crashing into the Patapsco River within seconds.

Vehicles could be seen on the road surface as the bridge warped and crashed in sections, with the third tranche cantilevering upwards before it, too, tumbled into the water.

Rescuers said they were still looking for at least seven people, having pulled two people free. As daylight broke the extent of the disaster became apparent.

Twisted stanchions of steel lay draped over the deck of the ship, on which stacks of containers teetered precariously - adding further danger to rescue and recovery work.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said maintenance workers were on the bridge at the time of the collision, an incident he described as an "unthinkable tragedy... like something out of an action movie."

"We have to be thinking about the families and people impacted, folks who we have to try to find," he said.

Footage appeared to show the ship going dark twice in the moments before the collision, possibly indicating some kind of power failure.

There was no immediate confirmation of the cause of the crash, but Baltimore's Police Commissioner Richard Worley said there was "no indication" of terrorism.

A huge emergency response swung into action after the collision, which happened around 1:30 am (0530 GMT), with first response vehicles crowding the shoreline.

Water temperatures were around 48 Fahrenheit (9 Celsius), narrowing the window of survivability and increasing the urgency for divers scouring the water, with tides also complicating efforts.

Baltimore's fire chief James Wallace said sonar had "detected the presence of vehicles" in the harbor, but declined to estimate how many.

One person was taken to hospital in "a very serious condition," he said, adding a second person recovered from the water was uninjured.

"We may be looking for upwards of seven individuals," he said.

'Sound of thunder'

Donald Heinbuch, a former Baltimore firefighter, said he could see the bridge from his bedroom window.

"We were awakened by what appeared to be an earthquake and a long, rolling sound of thunder," he told local media.

"I saw some emergency lights in the area and decided to drive up... what was in progress was a multi-jurisdictional response to a disaster."

The 1.6-mile (2.6- metre), four-lane bridge spans the Patapsco River southwest of Baltimore.

Named after the man who wrote the lyrics for the US national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner," it opened in 1977 and carries more than 11 million vehicles a year, around 31,000 a day.

It is a major part of the road network around Baltimore, an industrial city on the US East Coast close to the capital Washington.

Maryland Governor Wes Moore declared a state of emergency, a move that will ease the release of federal resources, while the White House said President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident.

Shipping giant Maersk said the "DALI," which was leaving Baltimore heading to Colombo in Sri Lanka, was being operated by charter vessel company Synergy Group, and carrying cargo belonging to Maersk customers.

"We are horrified by what has happened in Baltimore, and our thoughts are with all of those affected," a Maersk statement said.

All crew, as well as pilots - the specialised mariners who navigate vessels around ports -- have been accounted for, with no reports of any injuries, Synergy said.

While rescue and recovery efforts extended through Tuesday, attention will also shift to what happened, and whether the bridge was fit for purpose.

Some experts suggested the bridge’s support structures may not have been properly protected to withstand a collision by a large vessel.

"The extent of the damage to the bridge superstructure appears disproportionate to the cause, a matter for future investigation," said Toby Mottram, a structural engineering professor at the University of Warwick in Britain.

Baltimore is one of the busiest ports in the United States, handling $80 billion worth of cargo last year, including a large volume of vehicles.

The bridge's destruction could have a significant economic impact, with shipping in and out of the port suspended from Tuesday.