Cargo ship failures the day before the Baltimore Bridge collision may have affected ship operations, NTSB chief says

By Gregory Wallace and Eric Levenson

(CNN) – The cargo ship Dali suffered two power outages while moored in Baltimore Harbor a day before its catastrophic collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and efforts to resolve those power outages may have impacted ship operations, the head of the National said Transportation Safety Board will hold a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

After the two power outages at the port on March 25, the ship’s crew switched to a different transformer and circuit breaker set than those that had been in use for several months, according to NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy. That may have had an impact on the ship’s operations as it left port a day later, she said.

“Changing circuit breakers is not uncommon, but could have impacted operations as early as the next day of the accident trip,” Homendy said.

The comments, which further contextualize the focus of the NTSB investigation, came during a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reviewing and analyzing the federal response to the March 26 Key Bridge collapse became.

On Tuesday, the NTSB released a 24-page preliminary report detailing investigators’ initial findings. The Dali struck the bridge with so much force that the 1.6-mile-long steel structure collapsed, killing six construction workers on the bridge and disrupting access to key shipping routes in and out of the Port of Baltimore.

According to the report, the Dali was just three ship lengths from the bridge when it experienced two catastrophic power outages that caused several pumps needed for the ship’s propeller and rudder to stop working. The emergency generator was activated but was not configured to power the ship, the report said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Homendy described the ship as “essentially drifting” before crashing into the bridge.

The NTSB report noted that the Dali had experienced two power outages a day earlier while still moored in port.

“The NTSB is still investigating the electrical configuration following the initial port power outage and possible impact on events during the accident voyage,” the report said.

Homendy said Wednesday that the NTSB has been working closely with Hyundai, the manufacturer of the ship’s equipment, to try to recreate some of the electrical problems that day and better understand what happened.

A preliminary NTSB report does not indicate probable cause. Those findings will be part of a final report that could take investigators up to two years to complete.

Officials are estimating the cost and timeline for a replacement bridge

Wednesday’s House committee hearing featured testimony from Homendy, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. William H. Graham and Federal Highway Administration Administrator Shailen Bhatt.

Officials gave several estimates for next steps. The Dali is expected to be refloated and removed from port early next week, Gautier said, and the entire canal is on track to be open by the end of May, Graham said.

Additionally, a new replacement bridge is expected to open in 2028 and will cost about $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion, Bhatt said.

Meanwhile, Homendy recommended that bridge operators and owners take another look at how U.S. bridges are protected from incoming ships, citing the increasing size of cargo ships over the decades.

“In this situation you have a bridge that was commissioned in 1977, and if it were built today it would be built differently,” she said.

Video footage from moments before the crash showed plumes of black smoke rising from the 213 million-pound ship and lights flickering on and off.

The NTSB report details the desperate efforts of the people on the Dali to stop the ship and warn those on the bridge of a possible disaster. The report also highlights the near-disastrous experiences of a crew member on the ship and a road inspector on the bridge.

The crew member was at the bow of the ship at the time of the crash. “(He) told investigators that when he released the brake on the port anchor, he had to flee the collapsing bridge before he could apply the brake again,” the report said.

The inspector on the bridge was walking along the track when the ship hit. “He ran north and made it to the next remaining bridge before the rest of the bridge collapsed,” the report said.

Six construction workers who were filling potholes on the bridge died in the disaster. The victims were immigrants from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras who worked to support their families.

The CNN Wire
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