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Safety investigators are investigating whether dirty fuel contributed to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge

A safety investigation into the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, will examine whether contaminated fuel was a cause of a cargo ship losing power and crashing into the bridge.

Investigators had not boarded the ship, a 948-foot-long container ship named Dali, late Tuesday while it was stuck on a pillar of the collapsed bridge and the ship could remain there for weeks. Rescue workers spent much of Tuesday searching for potential survivors, but officials said the search and rescue had been converted into a recovery operation.

The lights on the Dali began flickering early Tuesday about an hour into the ship’s journey. According to a Coast Guard briefing report, a harbor pilot and an assistant reported power problems and a loss of propulsion before the collision.

“The ship is dead, there is no steering power and no electronics,” an officer aboard the ship said Tuesday. “One of the engines coughed and then stopped. The smell of burnt fuel was everywhere in the engine room and it was pitch black.”

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Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse

A Coast Guard vessel secures the area at the site of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, March 26, 2024. (REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson)

According to the officer, the ship did not have enough time to drop anchors to stop drifting and the crew members made a distress call before the crash occurred.

Power outages at sea are rare but do occur and have long been considered a major accident risk for ships on the water.

One cause of ship failures is contaminated fuel, which can lead to problems with the main power generators, said Fotis Pagoulatos, a naval architect. He said a total power failure could cause a ship to lose propulsion and allow smaller generators to start, but they cannot take over all the functions of the main generators and it takes time for them to start.

Jennifer Homendy, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a news conference that the investigation will also include reviews of the ship’s operations and safety record, as well as its owner and operator.

Crews will attempt to secure the recorders from the ship to find out what happened leading up to the crash.

“This is a team effort,” Homendy said. “There are many beings in the command post at the moment.”

Congress is expected to consider an emergency spending measure to replace the Baltimore Bridge after it collapsed

Francis Scott Key Bridge

A view of the cargo ship Dali that crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse, in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on March 26, 2024. (REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson)

The ship, manufactured by South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries, has undergone more than 20 port state control inspections – checks of foreign ships in national ports – since it was built in 2015, according to data from Equasis, an international shipping database.

None of the inspections resulted in a determination of what might happen if a vessel is deemed unfit to travel. However, deficiencies were noted in two of the reviews: one in Belgium in July 2016, which described hull damage, and another in Chile in June 2023, which described a problem with the ship’s propulsion and auxiliary machinery.

The U.S. Coast Guard completed an inspection of the ship in September 2023 and found no problems.

For its voyage on Tuesday, Singapore-based Synergy Marine Group operated the ship, which was carrying cargo for Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk. The ship left a terminal in the port of Baltimore and was en route to Sri Lanka. The ship is owned by a Singaporean company, Grace Ocean Pte.

Bridge collapse

Power outages at sea are rare but do occur and have long been considered a major accident risk for ships on the water. (REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson)

According to port officials, two tugboats helped the ship leave the terminal on Tuesday but withdrew as the journey began. Two pilots and 22 crew members from India were on board the ship during the crash, according to Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Synergy Marine.

According to authorities, the ship was moving at a speed of about 15 km/h, a typical speed for ships traveling in the area. Ships as large as the Dali have to maintain a certain speed to avoid being pushed around by wind and currents.

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The bridge’s collapse is expected to result in a series of multibillion-dollar insurance claims, according to insurance analysts, covering the loss of the structure itself, disruption to businesses using the port and more. Victims of the crash could also make claims against the ship operator.

The bridge was built in 1977 at a cost of more than $60 million, which, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to about $300 million today.

The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.

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