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What we know about the Baltimore bridge collapse

A massive cargo ship plowed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday, causing the 1.6-mile structure to crumble like a pile of toothpicks – plunging cars and people into the frigid water below.

Six construction workers filling potholes on the bridge vanished. The bodies of two were recovered Wednesday after they were found trapped in a red pickup in the Patapsco River, Maryland State Police said.

But search-and-recovery efforts for the four remaining workers who are presumed dead have been paused as crews grapple with dangerous debris, treacherous conditions in the water and the presence of hazardous materials aboard the ship.

Here’s what we know about the catastrophe and what’s next:

Why did the bridge collapse?

Shortly before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, a Singaporean-flagged container vessel called Dali struck one of the 47-year-old bridge’s pillars, officials said.

The ship is about 984 feet long – almost the length of three football fields. At the time of the crash, the Dali weighed 95,000 gross tons – or 213 million pounds – and was chartered to carry cargo by Danish shipping giant Maersk.

There were 21 crew members and two pilots onboard the Dali cargo ship, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday evening.

“Just minutes before (hitting) the bridge, there was a total blackout on the ship, meaning that the ship lost engine power and electrical power. It was a complete blackout,” said Clay Diamond, executive director and general counsel of the American Pilots Association.

The pilot then did “everything that he could have done” to slow the ship down and keep it from veering toward the bridge pillar, Diamond said.

Moments before the disaster, video footage shows the lights on the vessel flickering off and on – likely due to an emergency generator activating after the initial blackout, Diamond said. But the ship’s engines never turned on again.

Instead of crossing under the center of the bridge, where the clearance was highest, the ship drifted to the right and crashed into a pillar.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore confirmed the Dali had lost engine power.

“As a result (of the momentary loss of power), it was unable to maintain the desired heading and collided with the Francis Scott Key bridge,” the agency said in a statement, citing information from the ship’s management company – Synergy Marine Pte Ltd.

The Key Bridge was “fracture critical” and did not have any redundancy, Homendy said. “What that means is if a member fails, that would likely cause a portion of – or the entire bridge – to collapse,” she said.

These days, incorporating redundancies is the preferred method of building bridges, Homendy said. But the Key Bridge is one of 17,468 fracture-critical bridges in the US out of 615,000 total bridges, she said, citing the Federal Highway Administration.

The Key Bridge’s last fracture-critical inspection was in May 2023, and the bridge was deemed to be in “satisfactory condition,” Homendy said.

Who are the victims?

The victims include six construction workers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who were filling potholes on a bridge used by 30,000 commuters every day.

The bodies of two workers were recovered Wednesday morning: Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, a 35-year-old from Mexico, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, a 26-year-old from Guatemala, Maryland State Police said.

Search efforts for the other four workers have paused because vehicles that fell into the water are encased in concrete and other treacherous debris – making it unsafe for divers, Superintendent Col. Roland L. Butler said Wednesday.

The missing workers are presumed dead because it is virtually impossible to survive the frigid, 50-foot-deep water after several hours, officials said, and it was too dangerous for divers to navigate the dark water amid sharp debris from the crash.

It could take a few days before wreckage is cleared above and below the water, Baltimore City Fire Chief James Wallace told CNN on Wednesday night.

“Once that salvage effort takes place and that superstructure is removed, those same divers are gonna go back out there and bring those people closure,” Butler told reporters Wednesday.

The killed workers were immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala – fathers, husbands and sons who moved to the US to chase their dreams and provide for their families.

Officials with CASA, an organization supporting working-class immigrants and people of color, spoke on Friday about the dangers construction workers face, saying these essential workers perform dangerous yet critical work at significant personal risk so others can live their lives.

“These workers who make it possible to get to work… who work at night and in the cold and throughout the pandemic - so our lives are made easier,” said CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres.

Miguel Luna, a father of three from El Salvador who had lived in Maryland for more than 19 years, was among those killed in the tragedy, according to CASA.

Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, 38, another victim, is from Honduras but had been a US resident for the past 18 years, his brother told CNN. Suazo was married and had two children – an 18-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval worked two jobs and was the breadwinner for his family, his brother said. - Martin Suazo
Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval worked two jobs and was the breadwinner for his family, his brother said. - Martin Suazo

Dorlian Castillo Cabrera came to the US from Guatemala to pursue his dream and help his mother, Marlon Castillo, his cousin, told CNN. Pima Castillo, Cabrera’s sister-in-law, said he had been working at Brawner Builders for at least three years and loved his job.

In Dundalk, Maryland, the Owls Corner Café is rallying behind one of its employees, whose husband – Jose Mynor Lopez – has been missing since the bridge collapsed. Lopez’s wife, Isabel Franco, works for the cafe, according to owner Lilly Ordonez.

“Jose was a great man, husband, and dad,” Ordonez told CNN on Wednesday. “An extremely hardworking individual, a great provider, and family man.”

Carlos Hernández, a 24-year-old construction worker from Mexico, sent his girlfriend a voice memo from the bridge minutes before the collapse.

“Yes, my love, we just poured the cement and we’re just waiting for it to dry,” Hernández told Jazmin Alvarez, according to the voice note she shared with CNN affiliate Univision.

Hernández’s mother told Univision she’s asking for help getting a humanitarian visa so she can travel to Maryland and exert pressure to keep searching for her son.

“I wake up, I want to think I am dreaming,” Hernández’s mother, Lucia Zambrano, told Univision. “But I wake up and I know this is reality – that my son was there.”

Rafael Laveaga, chief of the Consular Section of Mexico’s Embassy in Washington, said he was not surprised the victims were from Latin America.

“It was a crew who was repairing parts of the potholes on the bridge, and they’re the ones who are going to build the bridge again – the Latinos,” he said.

Two other workers who were on the bridge were rescued from the Patapsco River, officials said.

Of the eight total people on the bridge, seven were employees at Brawner Builders, Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pritzker told CNN. Only one of them survived.

Moises Diaz, a Brawner Builders construction worker, confirmed to CNN that he worked with all of the bridge collapse victims and that his request for a last-minute shift change Tuesday may have saved his life.

Diaz told CNN the workers would have likely been on their break at the time of the vessel’s impact.

No one aboard the Dali vessel was seriously injured, according to Synergy Group.

Of the 21 crew members on board, 20 are Indian nationals who are “in good shape,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Thursday. “One of them got injured slightly,” spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said.

How dangerous is the water?

The Patapsco River under the Key Bridge was rife with hazards – both for the construction workers who vanished and for the rescue crews who tried to save them.

When crews arrived Tuesday morning, the surface water temperature of the Patapsco River was about 47 degrees, the fire chief said.

Any prolonged exposure to water under 55 degrees can be deadly, the National Weather Service said. Swimmers without floatation can survive in water temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees for about 30 to 60 minutes, according to the University of Minnesota.

And the deeper you go in the river, the colder and darker it gets – making the divers’ job more perilous, Wallace said.

There’s also sharp debris from the crash that might not be visible under water. And more pieces of the bridge or the ship could fall at any moment.

There’s a lot of instability with steel portions of the bridge that are hanging from other pieces of unsupported debris, Wallace told “Anderson Cooper 360.” There’s also a “steel superstructure” on the bow of the Dali that is “very unstable,” as well as containers hanging off the vessel, the fire chief said.

The crash that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge left sharp debris in the dark water, officials said. - Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
The crash that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge left sharp debris in the dark water, officials said. - Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Is there a hazmat risk?

An NTSB senior hazmat investigator identified 56 containers of hazardous material, Homendy said Wednesday.

“That’s 764 tons of hazardous materials — mostly corrosives, flammables, and some miscellaneous hazardous materials, class nine hazardous materials, which would include lithium ion batteries,” Homendy said.

She said some of the hazmat containers “were breached” and that sheen was seen on the waterway.

The US Coast Guard detected an oil sheen on the water near the wreckage on Tuesday, but the source of the fuel had not been determined, USCG Petty Officer Kimberly Reaves said.

There is no hazmat threat to the public, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Gautier said Wednesday.

Of the ship’s 4,700 cargo containers, only two went missing overboard – and neither contains hazardous materials, Gautier said. He said the vessel does have more than 1.5 million gallons of oil on board, but they remain stable.

There are no drinking water intakes near the site of the crash that could compromise drinking water quality, said Shaun Eagan, US Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson.

The Coast Guard had been examining 13 damaged containers – some with potentially hazardous materials – that were on the container ship, according to a US government document obtained by CNN and a US official familiar with the matter.

But the “majority” of those containers carrying hazardous materials “are closer to the pilot house and are completely unaffected by the damage to the bow of the ship,” Gautier said.

What do we know from the data recorder?

NTSB crews used the ship’s voyage data recorder to piece together a rough timeline of events leading up to the collision.

Was this an accident or an intentional act?

There’s no indication the ship’s crash and the bridge collapse were intentional, state and federal officials said.

“The preliminary investigation points to an accident,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Tuesday. “We haven’t seen any credible evidence of a terrorist attack.”

But there are multiple reasons why the FBI responded, former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe said.

“The first is because when you have an event like this that calls for a massive response (and) resources, all of the local law enforcement entities, federal entities, whoever’s in the area, because of mutual aid agreements, will show up and contribute whatever resources they have,” McCabe told CNN.

Second, the FBI can help confirm whether the disaster was intentional.

“They will look through all their intelligence holdings to see if there’s any chatter talking about plans or targeting, about locations like this, to see if there’s anything in the background that we should have been aware of and watching for,” McCabe said.

“Obviously, we’ve heard from numerous officials that that is not the case at this point.”

What happens next?

The NTSB is leading the investigation into the accident, Homendy said.

During the investigation – which could last one to two years – the NTSB will try to determine what happened on the Dali and will also examine the structure of the bridge itself. A preliminary report should be available in two to four weeks, Homendy said.

The NTSB is also interviewing members of the ship’s crew, Homendy said. The board has interviewed the ship’s captain, his mate, the chief engineer and one other engineer, Homendy said.

But it’s “too soon” to estimate when the port will reopen, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN Thursday. That will depend on assessments by the US Army Corps of Engineers and others as they work to understand the extent of the debris, he said.

“The longer the disruptions go on, the more you can see them cause some of these economic distortions,” Buttigieg said.

In the meantime, ports along the East Coast can temporarily accommodate extra traffic. But “we just need to make sure that whether it’s vehicles or other bulk products that there are plans for things that are a little more specialized,” Buttigieg said.

President Joe Biden said he’s committed to helping rebuild the bridge as soon as possible.

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge. And I expect the Congress to support my effort,” the president said.

“15,000 jobs depend on that port, and we’re gonna do everything we can to protect those jobs and help those workers,” Biden said.

“It’s one of the most important elements for the economy in the Northeast and the quality of life.”

CNN’s Ella Nilsen, Allison Gordon, Flora Charner, Amy Simonson, Jennifer Henderson, Sahar Akbarzai, Andy Rose, Derek van Dam, Monica Garrett, AnneClaire Stapleton, Louis Mian, Casey Riddle, Kit Maher, Sean Lyngaas, Mary Kay Mallonee, Melissa Alonso, Maria Santana, Elizabeth Wolfe, Vedika Sud and Sania Farooqui contributed to this report.

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