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Police had about 90 seconds to stop traffic before Baltimore bridge fell. 6 workers are feared dead

A container ship rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge near sunrise on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, in Baltimore, Md. | AP Photo/Matt Rourke
BALTIMORE (AP) — It was the middle of the night when a dispatcher’s warning crackled over the radio: A massive cargo ship had lost its steering capabilities and was heading toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge.
Within about 90 seconds, police officers who happened to be nearby responded that they managed to stop vehicle traffic over the Baltimore bridge in both directions.
One parked sideways across the lanes and planned to drive onto the bridge to alert a construction crew once another officer arrived. But he did not get the chance. Powerless and laden with huge containers, the vessel smashed into a support pillar.
“The whole bridge just fell down,” a frantic officer said. “Start, start whoever, everybody … the whole bridge just collapsed.”
When the container ship Dali slammed into the pillar around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the bridge crumpled into the Patapsco River. The loss of the major transportation link is expected to snarl commuter traffic and disrupt a vital shipping port.
At least eight people went into the water. Two were rescued, but the other six — part of a construction crew that had been filling potholes on the bridge — were missing and presumed dead. A search for their bodies was underway Wednesday.
The twisted metal and other debris in the water complicated the search, according to a Homeland Security memo described to The Associated Press by a law enforcement official. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the document or the investigation and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said divers in the water faced dangerous conditions.
“They are down there in darkness where they can literally see about a foot in front of them. They are trying to navigate mangled metal, and they’re also in a place it is now presumed that people have lost their lives,” he said.
Among the missing were people from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, according to diplomats from those countries. The Honduran man was identified as Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval.
Three Mexicans were on the bridge. One was rescued, and two are missing, said Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Federal and state officials have said the crash appeared to be an accident. Investigators planned to collect evidence on the ship, including electronics and paperwork, said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy.
The U.S. Coast Guard already boarded the vessel and downloaded the voyage data recorder and sent it to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is building a timeline of what led to the crash, Homendy said. A preliminary report could be done in two to four weeks, she said.
Capt. Michael Burns Jr. of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy said bringing a ship into or out of ports in restricted waters with limited room to maneuver is “one of the most technically challenging and demanding things that we do.”
There are “few things that are scarier than a loss of power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a ship loses propulsion and steering, “then it’s really at the mercy of the wind and the current.”
Video showed the ship moving at what Maryland’s governor said was about 9 mph (15 kph) toward the 1.6-mile (2.6-kilometer) bridge. Traffic was still moving across the span, and some vehicles appeared to escape with only seconds to spare. The crash caused the span to break and fall into the water within seconds.
Police said there is no evidence anyone went into the water other than the workers, though they had not discounted the possibility.
An executive at the company that employed the crew, Brawner Builders, said they were working in the middle of the bridge when it fell. “This was so completely unforeseen,” said Jeffrey Pritzker, the company’s executive vice president.
Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks.
“I know that a month ago, I was there, and I know what it feels like when the trailers pass,” Campos said. “Imagine knowing that is falling. It is so hard. One would not know what to do.”
Ako Walker, a Catholic priest at Sacred Heart of Jesus, said outside a vigil that he spent time with the families of the missing workers as they waited for news of their loved ones.
“You can see the pain etched on their faces,” Walker said.
The crash happened long before the busy morning commute on the bridge, which was used by 12 million vehicles last year.
From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure.
Tuesday’s collapse is sure to create a logistical headache along the East Coast for months, if not longer, shutting down shipping traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major hub.
Ship traffic entering and leaving the Port of Baltimore has been suspended indefinitely.
“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast,” state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it was too soon to give a time frame for clearing the channel, which is about 50 feet (15 meters) deep. President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore soon, and he expects the federal government to pay the entire cost of rebuilding.
Synergy Marine Group, which manages the ship, said the impact happened while it was under the control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely in and out of ports. Synergy said in a statement Wednesday that one crew member was treated at a hospital for a minor injury.
The ship is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd., and Danish shipping giant Maersk said it had chartered the vessel.
The 985-foot (300-meter) Dali was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and flying under a Singapore flag, according to data from Marine Traffic.
The vessel passed foreign port state inspections in June and September 2023. In the June 2023 inspection, a faulty monitor gauge for fuel pressure was rectified before the vessel departed the port, Singapore’s port authority said in a statement Wednesday.
Donald Heinbuch, a retired chief with Baltimore’s fire department, said he was startled awake by a deep rumbling that shook his house for several seconds and “felt like an earthquake.”
He drove to the river and couldn’t believe what he saw: “The ship was there, and the bridge was in the water, like it was blown up.”
Witte reported from Dundalk, Maryland. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report, including Colleen Long, Sarah Brumfield, Rebecca Santana, Jake Offenhartz, Joshua Goodman, Ben Finley, Claudia Lauer, Juliet Linderman, David McHugh, John Seewer, Michael Kunzelman, Mike Catalini and Sarah Rankin.
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