POV: Was the Francis Scott Key Bridge Disaster Avoidable?

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The tragic and instant collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore in the early hours of Tuesday, March 26, after a cargo ship apparently lost power and consequently lost steering, causing it to ram into one of the bridge supports, is an example of how most catastrophes occur: a series of smaller events align to create the disaster that causes harm. 

My background as a sailor, along with my experience working in the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics, helps me understand some of the details surrounding the accident. My position at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business as an operations professor who studies human error and accidents also gives me some unique insight.

Video courtesy of Guardian News

Let’s look at this from five angles:

  1. Details of the incident.
  2. What caused the immediate accident?
  3. How did individuals respond to the situation?
  4. What is the impact of the accident on people as well as future supply chain activities?
  5. What might be done to prevent future disasters?

Details: At 1:26 am on Tuesday, Dali, a 984-foot-long (almost the length of three football fields) cargo ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spans the Patapsco River in Baltimore’s harbor. The bridge collapsed in seconds. The ship had departed Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore’s harbor only 30 minutes prior to striking the bridge. All 22 crewmembers on the Dali (including the 2 local pilots) were accounted for and without injury. However, construction workers were filling potholes on the bridge at the time. According to reports, two construction workers were rescued from the water. But tragically, another six were still missing, and were presumed dead as of Tuesday evening, according to reports.

The organizations involved reflect the nature of today’s global supply chains. The Danish shipping company, Maersk, contracted the 2015 ship, which is owned and operated by Singapore’s Synergy Marine Group, to ship its customers’ goods to Sri Lanka via a monthlong voyage. There were two local “harbor pilots” on board, who are experts in the specific harbor and who are responsible for safely navigating ships in and out of the busy Baltimore harbor.

Cause: The ship seemed to have an electrical problem (as evidenced by the loss of lights two times before the collision, which can be seen in video footage). The loss of power meant that the pilots were drifting, unable to steer the boat. Smoke was seen rising from the boat as it struck the bridge support, suggesting they were logically trying to reverse the boat. The current and wind conditions blew the boat into one of the Francis Scott Key Bridge’s support structures at 1:26 am. The boat was going about 8 knots due to the current, the equivalent of about 9 miles per hour.

Response: The ship’s crew called Maryland’s Department of Transportation and issued a mayday call to the US Coast Guard moments before the crash, which enabled the Department of Transportation to stop traffic going onto the bridge. Hours after the bridge collapse, Maryland’s governor called those who stopped additional traffic from entering the bridge after the mayday call “heroes.”

Impact on supply chains: The bridge collapse will have a negative impact on the timeliness of delivery of several important goods. Ten commercial ships that were headed into Maryland’s port have been forced to anchor outside the harbor. Up to 40 shipping vessels are en route to the Port of Maryland and will also likely be affected. The Port of Maryland is the 11th busiest port in the US and handles imports of cars, coal, and sugar, and exports of waste paper, wood pulp, ferrous scrap, and agricultural equipment. In 2022, the Port of Maryland handled 750,000 vehicles, the highest of all US ports in terms of vehicles. Maersk’s stock was down 2 percent after the announcement of the accident.

Prevention: The bridge was built in 1970 and is a “truss” type of bridge with no redundancy to compensate for the loss of a support structure. Thus, the bridge collapsed quickly, like a toy structure, once a single support went down. It’s important to note that cargo ships are now two times larger than cargo ships in the 1970s, increasing the probability and risk posed by them striking a bridge due to the vessels’ large mass and size. In addition, the Port of Maryland does not require exiting and entering cargo ships to be escorted by tugboats, which could have towed the Dali to safety when it lost its steering ability. At a quick glance, it seems clear that having tug escorts or availability of tugs seems prudent, or adding additional support for vulnerable bridges. I suspect the cost of taking these measures seemed prohibitive given the low probability of a ship striking the bridge.

In terms of the boat itself, it is unclear whether there were systematic problems. It has been inspected 27 times since it was built in 2015. In June 2023, an inspection in Chile listed a deficiency related to the propulsion and auxiliary machinery—gauges, thermometers, etc. However, the deficiency was corrected the same day and the last inspection, in New York in September 2023, surfaced no deficiencies.

We should ask whether similar problems could happen at other ports. Three years ago, Synergy Marine Group’s Founder and Executive Chairman Captain Rajesh Unni warned that current port infrastructure is misaligned with today’s shipping vessels, creating dangerous conditions.

My perspective: Sadly, this tragedy is typical of how most accidents occur. Rather than being caused by a single mistake or human error, a series of minor issues align catastrophically to cause human harm. The ship lost power (issue 1) as it was leaving the port before it passed under the bridge (issue 2), strong winds and currents (issue 3) blew it into the bridge, which was an old bridge (issue 4) with insufficient support to withstand losing one of its pillars (issue 5), and the Port of Maryland did not require tug assistance, so there was no back up for the boat itself when it lost steering (issue 6).

All those elements had to be present for the ship to strike the bridge. For example, if the ship had lost steerage after clearing the bridge, or if the currents were not as strong as they were, or if tugboats had been required to help guide the ship, it’s probable this would have been just a “near-miss” incident. The challenge for organizations and governments is to respond to near-miss incidents by taking measures to prevent future accidents that might have worse outcomes.

Anita Carson is Larz Anderson Professor in Operations & Technology Management and department chair of operations and technology management at BU’s Questrom School of Business, and can be reached at altucker@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

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