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Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Two Possible Causes of Disaster

In an instant, much of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was gone – as dozens of its steel girders collapsed into the water after being hit by a cargo ship.

But how could such a catastrophe occur?

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What do we know about the bridge and the ship that hit it?

Emergency services are always on site and details about the victims continue to emerge.

Sky News spoke to a number of maritime and technical experts to try to understand what might have happened – and what issues might have been at play.

Picture:
The Singapore-flagged container ship “Dali” collided with the bridge. Photo: Reuters

Was human error to blame?

Professor Helen Sampson, an expert at Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre, says the accident could have been caused by someone’s mistake.

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She told Sky News: “Was there some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding between the pilot and crew? Or was there pilot error?”

The time of day the disaster occurred – around 1:30 a.m. local time – raises concerns about fatigue, she added.

“The weather also makes me wonder if there was an element of fatigue at play…

“We almost always focus on human error at the individual level, there is almost always a broader context that resulted in that human error, such as fatigue and the demands placed on pilots or crews.”

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“They thought it was an earthquake”

What about a mechanical problem?

However, another maritime safety expert says the “most likely” cause of the accident was a failure of the ship’s machinery.

David McFarlane, director of Maritime Risk and Safety Consultants Ltd, told Sky News: “The first thing that comes to mind is: has there been a sudden failure with the ship’s engines or aircraft? to govern?

Mr McFarlane said human error was less likely because of the number of people who would have been on duty.

“There should be no room for one person’s mistakes, because one of the other people would have to step in and say ‘wait,'” he said.

“The most likely cause is a failure of the machinery or steering gear, but we won’t know until the authorities are on board. And even then it’s unlikely they’ll say that which happens before a certain time.”

Professor Sampson said a mechanical failure of the steering gear or something similar would be the “most dramatic” explanation for what happened.

Authorities confirmed that the ship that crashed into the bridge had made a distress call and lost power.

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock The Baltimore Bridge collapses after being hit by a cargo ship, United States - March 26, 2024. The Francis Scott Key Bridge is partially collapsed after a container ship l collided in Baltimore, Maryland, United States on March 26.  2024.
Picture:
The remains of the deck at the top of the ship. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Was there a design flaw in the bridge?

Opened in 1977, the Francis Scott Key Bridge is named after the poet who wrote the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.

Built from steel, it was 1.6 miles long and was reminiscent of some bridges in the UK, an expert told Sky News.

Julian Carter, an expert in structures and civil engineering, said these structures are simple in concept – but “very weak” in some places.

“It’s what we call a continuous structure where every little piece is connected to another – and unfortunately it’s a catastrophic collapse.”

Read more: What do we know so far about a bridge collapse?

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Professor Barbara Rossi, an engineering science expert at Oxford University, said the force of the cargo ship’s impact must have been “immense” to lead to the collapse of the concrete structures supporting the bridge.

“We should not speculate on whether such enormous impact forces should have been taken into account at the design stage,” she added.

Discussions also took place over whether “dolphins” (steel structures embedded in the seabed to stop or divert a ship) or artificial islands might have been inadequate.

Bridge designer Robert Benaim said: “I don’t know what arrangements were made for this bridge, but major bridges over shipping lanes must have substantial protection for the piers or columns.”

He added: “If piles are not adequately protected, then they are vulnerable to ship strikes. It is clear that the battery protection in this case was inadequate. A bridge pier or column could never withstand the impact of a large ship. They must be protected from collisions. »

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