South Asia and Beyond

Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Were There Safety Lapses?

 Baltimore Bridge Collapse: Were There Safety Lapses?

The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore where divers assisted crews with the complicated and meticulous operation of removing steel and concrete (Photo: AP Photo/Mike Pesoli)

The 21 Indian and one Sri Lankan members of the crew of the container vessel Dali, that rammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge last week, remain on the ship, constrained by the ongoing investigation. Seafarers welfare groups say they are well supplied with food and water but cannot be brought ashore for now. For the Dali to sail again, it would have to be first set free from the tangled wreckage of the Baltimore bridge, and its machinery and other ship systems examined and repaired. Both will likely take time.

The big question now being asked is whether the deaths of the six construction workers on the bridge, could have been saved and whether there were any safety lapses on the part of their construction company.

In the moments before the cargo ship Dali rammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge and sent it crumbling into the water, a flurry of urgent warnings crackled over radios and enabled police to block traffic from getting on the span, likely saving lives. But those warnings seemingly didn’t reach the six construction workers who were killed. Their deaths have raised questions about whether the construction company took proper precautions, including keeping a safety boat nearby that might have been able to warn them at least a few seconds before impact.

Federal regulations require construction companies to keep such boats, commonly known as skiffs, on hand whenever crews are working over waterways, safety experts told The Associated Press. There is no indication that the construction company, Brawner Builders, had a rescue boat on the water or ready to be launched as the bridge fell.

“If you’re working over a bridge like that, the standard interpretation doesn’t give you an option,” said Janine McCartney, a safety engineer for HHC Safety Engineering Services Inc. “The skiff is required, period.”

Coast Guard representatives and other officials said they were unaware of any Brawner boat in the water at the time of the March 26 collapse. And satellite images from around the time of the collapse appeared to show no skiff in the river near the bridge.

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Even if the workers had been warned that the giant ship was about to hit, it’s unclear if they would have had enough time to scramble to safety.

The archived recordings of the bridge’s maintenance radio channel from early that morning include only one minor exchange between two maintenance workers about the approaching ship, though it’s unclear if either was on or near the span at the time. In the exchange, a man with a muffled voice seemed to ask what was going on, and the other replied, “They’re just holding traffic because a ship lost its steering, that’s all.” The bridge collapsed less than 30 seconds later.

But if a safety boat were present, experts said, it might have been able to use a marine radio and required walkie-talkies to warn the construction workers about the Dali’s distress calls, possibly giving them a chance to act. Authorities say a construction inspector was able to run to a section of the bridge that didn’t collapse, though it’s unknown what warning, if any, he received.

A Brawner representative declined to comment for this story, saying the company is focused on taking care of the families of the workers, who were filling potholes on the bridge when it collapsed. Brawner has used safety skiffs for work on bridges in the past, according to a deposition of a company executive that was part of a 2011 lawsuit.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations say construction companies performing work over waterways must have at least one safety boat available. OSHA officials have said in rule interpretations over the years that the required boat can “ensure prompt rescue of employees that fall into the water, regardless of other precautions taken to prevent this from occurring.”

An OSHA spokesperson didn’t respond to repeated requests for clarification on that regulation.

Surya Gangadharan

Thirty eight years in journalism, widely travelled, history buff with a preference for Old Monk Rum. Current interest/focus spans China, Technology and Trade. Recent reads: Steven Colls Directorate S and Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon. Netflix/Prime video junkie. Loves animal videos on Facebook. Reluctant tweeter.