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A global disaster unfolds on a bridge over a river in Baltimore

When it opened 47 years and six days ago on “a spectacularly clear” March morning, the steel-arched Francis Scott Key Bridge was hailed as an engineering wonder offering “some of the most spectacular vistas in Maryland.”

“You could almost see forever,” read an editorial in The Evening Sun newspaper, noting the breathtaking sights of Baltimore’s skyline, the bustling harbor, historic Fort McHenry and the old Bethlehem Steel mill in Sparrows Point.

Despite construction delays and massive cost overruns, the editorial said “you can see it as a proud completing buckle in the Baltimore belt,” referring to the final link in the heavily traveled route that runs around the city.

About 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, under a nearly full moon and clear skies, large sections of a bridge that took five years to build disappeared in seconds when a 213-million-pound loaded cargo vessel nearly the length of the Eiffel Tower struck a crucial support column the Key Bridge could not stand without.

The iconic span named for the author of the American national anthem snapped under the night sky and hurtled into the cold and murky waters of the Patapsco River, killing six overnight immigrant laborers fixing potholes on the bridge. Two people were pulled out alive from the water.

“Every single day I would see the bridge. And I go out there … and the bridge is gone,” said Jayme Krause, 32, who was working at a nearby Amazon factory that shook when the ship hit the bridge. “You don’t want to think about … people who are dying literally hundreds of feet from you. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things.”

On Wednesday, two bridge workers were found trapped underwater in a red pickup, according to the Maryland State Police. For now search efforts have ended for four additional workers – who are presumed dead – because other submerged vehicles sit under concrete and other debris, making it unsafe for divers.

The collapse, captured in dramatic live-stream video, has reverberated beyond the Port of Baltimore – one of the nation’s largest for international cargo and a major hub for vehicles, containers and commodities.

It is an international disaster that has touched lives throughout the world: the Latin American bridge workers who made their home around Baltimore; more than 20 crew members, who are safe, are from India; the Singapore-flagged cargo vessel Dali, which was docked in Baltimore for two days and chartered by Danish shipping giant Maersk to carry the cargo for its customers.

Their stories all intersect on an old bridge over a river in Baltimore.

“This is just more than a bridge to Baltimoreans,” said City Council President Nick Mosby, noting that working-class neighborhoods and shipping-related industries that sprouted up nearby all rely on the port.

‘A total blackout on the ship’

The day before the 984-foot-long vessel departed the Port of Baltimore, the director of Apostleship of the Sea Catholic ministry took the ship’s captain shopping in preparation for a 28-day journey to Sri Lanka.

“I’ve been in this ministry for 15 years now, and if there’s one thing … that you learn working with seafarers, is that they’re deeply, deeply caring people,” said Andy Middleton, a former Baltimore police officer who now heads the volunteer nonprofit that ministers to mariners.

On the way to a Walmart the captain told Middleton the ship was taking a more circuitous route around the tip of South Africa to avoid the coast of Yemen, where Houthis have been attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.

“It was a safer way to go,” said Middleton, who described the ministry as a friendly face to seafarers passing through the port. A volunteer took several of the Indian crew members shopping on Sunday.

At 12:39 a.m. Tuesday, the Dali unmoored from the port for the start of its long journey, according to Marcel Muise, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge, citing information gleaned from the ship’s voyage data recorder (VDR).

In the middle of the night a pair of tugboats initially towed the Dali away from the Seagirt Marine Terminal, where 20-story cranes dominate the port’s skyline. Two Chesapeake Bay pilots on board provided navigational commands to help guide the gigantic vessel away from the unfamiliar port.

“It pulled away from the dock with tugs into the turning basin,” said Scott Cowan, president of the Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 in Baltimore – whose members secure loads on and off the deck, operate cranes and run the boxes throughout the yard.

“Once it was in the channel, the tugboats were cut loose.”

In the main shipping channel, the Dali headed southeast toward the Key Bridge before it began veering to the right. At 1:24 a.m. the ship’s lights flickered, according to the video.

Around the same time, numerous audible alarms were recorded on the ship’s bridge audio. Then the VDR stopped recording ship system data but continued to record audio using a redundant power source, according to Muise.

At 1:26 a.m., the VDR resumed recording ship data. Steering commands and rudder orders were recorded on the audio.

The ship’s pilot made a very high frequency (VHF) radio call for tugs in the area to assist. A pilot association dispatcher phoned the Maryland Transportation Authority duty officer about the blackout.

The Dali was moving toward one of the support pilings under the Key Bridge, according to a CNN analysis of data from MarineTraffic, which tracks the position of ships throughout the world. Its lights continued to flicker.

“Just minutes before the bridge, there was a total blackout on the ship. Meaning that the ship lost engine power and electrical power,” said Clay Diamond, executive director and general counsel of the American Pilots Association, who was in contact with people familiar with what happened moments before the crash.

‘Just make sure no one is on the bridge’

At 1:27 a.m., the pilot ordered the Dali to drop anchor. He gave additional steering commands, Muise said.

The pilot also made a VHF radio call around the same time, reporting the Dali had lost all power as it approached the bridge. The Maryland Transportation Authority duty officer radioed two police units that were already on scene because of bridge construction and ordered them to close traffic. All lanes were shut down.

The mayday call provided a few precious moments to close the bridge and likely prevented more cars from being on the span, averting the loss of many more lives.

“The moments between when the crew called for a mayday and the moments that the bridge actually collapsed, we’re talking seconds,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said on CNN.

The pilot did “everything that he could have done” to both slow the ship and keep it from drifting to the right, toward the bridge support column, according to Diamond. The ship’s engine never got started again.

“Those were all the appropriate steps, but it happened so quickly and with so little lead time … neither one of those maneuvers were enough,” Diamond said.

The ship’s over ground speed was recorded at just under 8 mph, Muise said Wednesday evening. At 1:29 a.m. and 33 seconds, the VDR audio recorded sounds consistent with a collision. Transportation authority cameras showed the bridge lights extinguishing.

The Dali container vessel after striking the Francis Scott Key Bridge. - Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The Dali container vessel after striking the Francis Scott Key Bridge. - Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Transportation Authority police radio captured responders moving to evacuate and halt traffic on the bridge after a dispatcher said a ship had lost its steering, according to Broadcastify.

“I need one of you guys on the south side. One of you guys on the north side. Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge. There’s a ship approaching that just lost their steering. So until we get that under control, we’ve got to stop all traffic.”

“I’m en route to the south side,” an officer said.

“I’m holding traffic now. I was driving but we stopped prior to the bridge. So I’ll have all outer loop traffic stopped,” another officer said moments later.

“Is there a crew working on the bridge right now? … If we can stop traffic, just make sure no one is on the bridge right now… If there’s a crew up there you might want to notify whoever the foreman is to see if we can get them off the bridge temporarily,” the dispatcher said.

“Once you get here, I’ll go grab the workers on the Key Bridge and then stop the outer loop,” an officer said.

It was too late.

‘The whole bridge just collapsed’

At 1:29 a.m. and 39 seconds, the pilot radioed the US Coast Guard: The bridge was down.

“Dispatch, the whole bridge just fell down! … Whoever, everybody, the whole bridge just collapsed,” an officer said on the transportation authority radio channel.

Another officer said: “I can’t get to the other side, sir, the bridge is down.”

Minutes before impact, the video showed thick black smoke rising from the ship. Then successive sections of the 1.6-mile bridge – once considered a source of civic pride and a milestone in transportation planning – crumpled into the river.

When the Key Bridge was built decades ago, container ships were a fraction of the size and weight they are today. The structure was not designed to protect against collisions with ships as big as the Dali.

“This is not like a car. They don’t have brakes,” said Cowan, the president of the Longshoremen’s Association Local 333. “When they don’t have any power, they don’t have any propulsion. They can’t reverse the engines … to slow it down or stop it once it’s underway. And these things weigh a lot, thousands of tons. They just don’t stop on a dime.”

Police recovery crews work near the collapsed bridge on Wednesday. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Police recovery crews work near the collapsed bridge on Wednesday. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Early Tuesday, after hearing of the bridge collapse, Middleton, the director of the nonprofit that ministers to sailors, sent a message to a crew member aboard the Dali.

“That crew member responded within just a few minutes advising that the crew was safe,” he said.

Starr Smith, a Baltimore native who has worked as an Uber driver for nine years and used to cross the bridge at least seven times a day, got a call from her mother Tuesday morning.

“She was like, ‘Hey, I want to catch you before you leave because the bridge collapsed,’ ” Smith recalled. “And my heart just dropped, honestly.”

Like so many Baltimoreans, so many Americans, Smith thought about the randomness of life.

“The cars that were still coming across when it was happening, that could have been any one of us,” Smith said. “My brain still cannot fathom it actually happened.”

John Zimmerman, 83, an iron worker who helped build the Key Bridge in the 1970s, learned about the disaster on the TV news Tuesday morning.

“I didn’t think that bridge would ever come down,” he said.

They’re ‘going to build the bridge again’

High above the Patapsco River early Tuesday, a group of men fixed potholes on the bridge used by 30,000 motorists every day.

They were fathers, husbands and sons who had traveled far from poor, dust-choked villages in Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala.

Now they were the centerpiece of a global disaster, with loved ones left wondering what they must have felt in those terrifying final moments before tumbling several stories into the cold river.

They included Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, 38, who came from Santa Bárbara in Honduras and spent the last 18 years of his life in America. He was married and a father to an 18-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Family members had until Wednesday hoped for a miracle. Now they weren’t sure how to break the news of his death to his 72-year-old mother in Honduras.

Miguel Luna, a native of El Salvador, was also working on the Key Bridge. He left home for work at 6:30 p.m. Monday and never returned. He was a husband and a father of three who called Maryland home for more than 19 years, according to a statement from CASA, a non-profit that provides services to working-class and immigrant families.

And Dorlian Castillo Cabrera, a 26-year-old from Guatemala, who had been working for Brawner Builders at least three years. He loved his job, said Pima Castillo, his sister-in-law.

Another worker was identified as Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, a 35-year-old from Mexico, whose body was found in the submerged pickup with Castillo. A relative of Alejandro Hernandez, 24-year-old Carlos Hernandez, was among three Mexican workers killed in the collapse.

Carlos Hernandez’s girlfriend, Jazmin Alvarez, who lives in Mexico, shared with CNN affiliate Univision a voice message he had sent her minutes before the collapse.

“Yes, my love, we just poured the cement and we’re just waiting for it to dry,” Hernández said in the voice note.

At the Owls Corner Café in Dundalk, the owner said the husband of employee Isabel Franco has been missing since the bridge collapse. His name is Jose Mynor Lopez and he’s a native of Guatemala. The business has started a GoFundMe page for Franco and her family, writing that Lopez’s family now faces an “uncertain future” without its “main provider and pillar of strength.”

The cafe owner, Lilly Ordonez, said Franco barely sleeps or eats and waits by the phone for news about her husband. CNN has sought confirmation from local authorities that Lopez is among the missing.

One of the people pulled out alive from the water was a worker from the Mexican state of Michoacan, which said in a statement the three Mexican bridge workers were related.

Authorities have told the families they haven’t given up on recovering their loved ones from the twisted wreckage in the waters of the Patapsco, but they aren’t sure when that process will begin. Debris must be removed from the water before more bodies can be recovered.

On Friday, a massive crane – the largest on the East Coast – was docked near the scene of the collapse as state and federal officials talked about reopening the port and eventually rebuilding the bridge. The floating crane will be part of the massive effort to clear up to 4,000 tons of debris that has hampered search crews.

“We know our people are involved,” Rafael Laveaga, chief of the Mexican Embassy in Washington’s consular section, said of the immigrants who died working for a living.

“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.”

CNN’s Holly Yan, Maria Santana, Melissa Alonso, Allison Gordon, Emma Tucker, Tina Burnside, Alex Stambaugh, Abel Alvarado, Aditi Sangal, Danny Freeman, Caroll Alvarado, Amy Simonson, Mary Kay Mallonee, Yahya Abou-Ghazal, Sabrina Souza, AnneClaire Stapleton, Antoinette Radford, Dakin Andone, Curt Devine, Casey Tolan, Isabelle Chapman, Elizabeth Wolfe, Lauren Mascarenhas, Elise Hammond, Gloria Pazmino and Alex Medeiros contributed to this report.

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