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Baltimore Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse – good news update, learnings, and impacts

Some good news on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore which collapsed after Dali, a container ship hit its support structure on the 26th of March 2024.

In the latest update from Baltimore, the Key Bridge Response team has reported that “The Captain of the Port (COTP) is preparing to establish a temporary alternate channel on the northeast side of the main channel in the vicinity of the Francis Scott Key Bridge for commercially essential vessels.

This initiative, aimed at facilitating the movement of “commercially essential vessels,” marks a crucial first step towards the full reopening of the Port of Baltimore, according to Capt.David O’Connell, Federal On-Scene Coordinator, Key Bridge Response 2024.

The establishment of this route is part of a “phased approach” to re-opening the main channel, reflecting the complex nature of the recovery and cleanup operations currently underway.

This will mark an important first step along the road to reopening the port of Baltimore. By opening this alternate route, we will support the flow of marine traffic into Baltimore,” said O’Connell.

This action is part of a phased approach to opening the main channel. The temporary channel will be marked with government lighted aids to navigation and will have a controlling depth of 11 feet, a 264-foot horizontal clearance, and vertical clearance 96 feet,” as per the Key Bridge Response’s website.

The current 2,000-yard safety zone around the Francis Scott Key Bridge remains in effect and is intended to protect personnel, vessels, and the marine environment as officials report that 80-90% of the bridge wreckage remains underwater..

In the meantime, a cleanup operation that has been initiated to remove the bridge has seen significant progress, with a 200-tonne section of the bridge already removed and ongoing efforts to cut and dispose of the debris.

The BBC is reporting that a Chesapeake 1000 crane, the largest on the eastern US seaboard, has been deployed to aid in these efforts.

Francis Scott Key Bridge clean up operation
Image : BBC

The authorities have planned to cut the bridge into smaller sections enabling quicker removal of the debris and help rescuers recover all the victims’ bodies as well as reopen the main shipping lane.

It is understood that the six men who perished in the incident were all construction workers who were fixing potholes on the bridge at that time. Only two of the 6 bodies have been recovered so far and the search for the other 4 has been suspended due to the challenges posed by the bridge debris.

Experts are of the view that it could take a month before the full channel reopens, and years to rebuild the bridge.

What is seen as a complication for the recovery efforts is the Dali container vessel itself, which remains in the water with its 22 strong crew still stranded but reportedly unharmed on board the ship.

The recovery is further hampered by the vast amount of debris in the Patapsco River, which limits underwater visibility for divers to just a few feet.

The US government has reportedly allocated $60 million in initial emergency funds to aid in the recovery, and President Joe Biden has indicated his expectation for Congress to support additional funding for the bridge’s reconstruction. Biden is also expected to visit Baltimore this week to assess the situation firsthand.

Impact on Baltimore port and insights on other ports in North America

In the meantime, Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Professor at Texas A&M University in Galveston has shared some interesting insights concerning other ports in North America that could potentially be blocked or otherwise affected in whole or in part (some parts of the port not accessible depending on the bridge) in the event of a bridge collapse:

  • Montreal (full; 3 bridges on the St. Lawrence channel).
  • Halifax (partial).
  • New York (full or partial, depending on which bridge).
  • Philadelphia (full or partial).
  • Baltimore (close to full).
  • Virginia/Hampton Roads (none – tunnels).
  • Charleston (partial).
  • Savannah (close to full).
  • Jacksonville (partial).
  • Miami (none – direct access channel).
  • Mobile (none – tunnels – direct access channel).
  • New Orleans (partial).
  • Houston (partial).
  • San Diego (partial).
  • LA/LB (partial, many terminals with direct access channel).
  • San Francisco/Oakland (full or partial).
  • Seattle/Tacoma (none – direct access channel).
  • Vancouver (partial).
  • Prince Rupert (none – direct access channel).

Building on a previous post about the potential repercussions of a harbor bridge collapse on the accessibility of main port facilities to open seas, Professor Rodrigues has crafted a map focusing on the major ports of North America.

He emphasizes the significance of understanding that this endeavor does not serve as a risk evaluation, nor does it imply any port’s susceptibility to bridge failures. It simply illustrates the potential consequences on port access in the event of a harbor bridge collapse, pending the clearance of the channel(s).

impact due to bridge collapse

A brief explanation of the classification as suggested by Professor Rodrigue is as per the below image

  • Full. The great majority (if not all) of the port facilities would lose access.
  • Partial to full. A large share of the port facilities would lose access.
  • Full or partial. Depending on the harbor bridge involved (more than one harbor bridge), the port would lose full or partial access to its facilities.
  • Partial. A significant share of the facilities would lose access.
  • None. There are no harbor bridges or harbor crossings through tunnels.

Below is a map of the main terminal facilities currently inaccessible to maritime shipping services due of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge

terminals inaccessible due to baltimore bridge collapse

A quick study on the Impacts of the Baltimore Bridge Collapse on Access to Its Main Port Terminal Facilities states that “This port blockage is likely to be the most expensive in recent history since it was associated with the complete destruction of a major bridge, loss of life of six people, heavy damage to the containership and a portion of its cargo, a dozen ships stranded in the harbor, reduced capabilities of the US military and Coast Guard, loss of income for the port authority and terminals and the multiple of disruption in the related supply chains.

Interestingly, the collapse of a bridge due to a ship collision is not an unprecedented event globally, and particularly in the United States.

According to AP News, which cites a 2018 report from the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, there were 35 significant bridge collapses around the world from 1960 to 2015, resulting in 342 fatalities. Notably, more than half of these incidents, with 18 collapses, occurred in the USA.

At the same time, it was also reported that the Dali was also involved in an accident in Antwerp in 2016 when it hit a quay while exiting the North Sea container terminal. A subsequent inspection stated a hull damage impairing its seaworthiness at the time.

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