5 takeaways from congressional hearing on Key Bridge collapse, response

Salvage operations continue on May 8 at the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse site as workers prepare to remove a large section of the bridge from the bow of the container ship Dali. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE — A day after a preliminary report revealed new details about what happened in the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore after a vessel strike, members of Congress peppered officials behind the federal response with questions about the ship’s power outage, the safety of other bridges and how to pay for a new bridge.

How might the ship’s power problems have been avoided? How prepared for massive ships was this bridge and others across the country? How should the federal government recoup costs for a new bridge?


In the early morning of March 26, a huge container ship left the Port of Baltimore on a voyage to Sri Lanka, but didn’t make it very far. The 984-foot Dali lost power twice within about half a mile of the Key Bridge and it drifted into one of the bridge’s support piers around 1:30 a.m., collapsing the span and killing six construction workers.

A Coast Guard official said Tuesday that response officials in Baltimore believe the Dali will be refloated and removed from the middle of the waterway “early next week.” The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to reopen the federal channel by the end of May, if not sooner.

Meanwhile, other work remains ongoing. The National Transportation Safety Board, which released its preliminary report Tuesday, continues to investigate the cause of the vessel’s strike. The FBI has a criminal investigation. Transportation officials are planning for a new bridge.

The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure convened Tuesday’s hearing to explore the federal response. Here are four takeaways:

Dali’s power losses were distinct

About 10 hours before it left port, the Dali experienced a pair of blackouts, or complete losses of power, while the crew undertook engine maintenance, the NTSB’s preliminary report revealed.

The power losses in port, originally triggered by a mechanical problem caused by crewmember’s mistake, led the crew to switch the ship’s power supply to a different electrical transformer and circuit breakers, the report said. Those breakers tripped twice as the ship approached the bridge, rendering it mostly rudderless and without propulsion as it plowed into the support pier.

During her testimony, Homendy distinguished the Dali’s four power outages.

“Preliminary information indicates that the March 25 blackouts were mechanically distinct from those that occurred on March 26,” Homendy told lawmakers. “Two were related to routine maintenance in port. Two were unexpected tripping of circuit breakers on the accident voyage.”

Figuring out what caused the breakers to trip as the Dali approached the bridge is at the center of what Homendy described as an investigation of “unprecedented” scale for her agency, which probes transportation disasters with the goal of preventing future tragedies, not holding anyone accountable.

“Switching breakers is not unusual but may have affected operations the very next day on the accident voyage,” Homendy testified. “So the configuration of the breakers remains under investigation.”

Coast Guard to assess major ports

The Key Bridge collapse spawned numerous questions about the safety of maritime operations around American ports and infrastructure.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Gautier said Wednesday that those questions warrant immediate attention, and that officials can’t wait until the conclusion of federal investigations into the disaster in Baltimore for answers.

“While we look forward to the results of these investigations, it is evident, looking more broadly, that the size and complexity of ships has grown over the years, placing greater demands on our marine transportation infrastructure that may not have kept pace with the increased risk that these vessels pose,” Gautier testified. “It’s time for us to more broadly understand these risks.”

Gautier told lawmakers he was convening a “nationwide Board of Inquiry” to evaluate the efficacy of the Coast Guard’s risk management resources and how they’re being put to use in major ports.

Describing the probe as a critical step to ensure “safe and secure flow of commerce on our waterways,” Gautier said it would “establish a holistic national level approach to develop risk profiles, identify ways to address vulnerabilities and propose actions to reduce the risk of major incidents.”

Homendy said she was “very encouraged” to hear the Coast Guard’s plan for a board of inquiry for ports across the country.

Questions over funding bridge reconstruction

President Joe Biden has pledged that the federal government would pay entirely to rebuild the bridge. But if Congress is fronting the cost of a new bridge, anticipated to approach a price tag of $2 billion, committee members asked Tuesday, how can it expect to get some money back?

Shailen Bhatt, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, told lawmakers that under existing rules, any insurance funds recovered after an “emergency relief” event go back into the emergency relief fund. That program covers most of the costs of repairs to damaged roads and bridges following natural disasters and external catastrophic failures.

The roughly $1.7 to $1.9 billion emergency relief request related to the Key Bridge collapse is the second-largest ever received by the Federal Highway Administration, according to Bhatt. It is second to a $2.2 billion request made following Hurricane Katrina, he said Wednesday.

Bhatt also acknowledged, in response to lawmakers’ questions, that the Key Bridge had been redesignated following the collapse as part of the interstate highway system, rather than a state facility. That redesignation means it will be eligible for 90% or more of the costs to be covered by the federal program, rather than the 80% it would have qualified for without the designation.

The Federal Highway Administration has told Maryland officials that they “believe” emergency relief funding will be available, which Bhatt said helps to relieve some “uncertainty.”

“I can pretty much with certainty guarantee this will not be 100% federally funded eventually, because we will recoup all of the insurance payments … and they will go back into the [emergency relief] funds,” Bhatt said.

Questions about pier protection — for Key Bridge and others

The NTSB’s preliminary report noted that the Key Bridge had four dolphins, or island-like structures in the water, designed to protect its piers — two on each side of the bridge.

But those devices didn’t stop the drifting Dali from striking one of the bridge piers, which was surrounded by timber, concrete and steel. The surrounding protection remained relatively tight to the pier itself, Homendy said Wednesday, and the dolphins were “rather small.”

She said the NTSB has been comparing the Key Bridge to others that “have pier protection that comes out farther, so that a vessel can’t get to the column” and larger dolphins.

“In this situation, you have a bridge that began operations in 1977. If it was built today, it would be built differently,” Homendy said.

She urged other bridge owners to conduct risk assessments of their own bridges with this in mind, alongside the growing size of containerships. It’s not necessary to wait until the NTSB investigation is complete to evaluate how protected a bridge is, she said.

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