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Cargo ship lost power before colliding with Baltimore bridge; 6 presumed dead

Editor’s Note: Read CNN’s latest coverage on the Baltimore bridge collapse.

The US Coast Guard says it is suspending its search and rescue efforts for the six individuals still missing after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

“I’d like to announce tonight that based on the length of time that we’ve gone in this search, the extensive search efforts we’ve put into it, the water temperature, that at this point we do not believe that we’re going to find any of these individuals still alive,” Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath told reporters at a Tuesday evening news conference.

The collapse occurred after a massive container ship lost power early Tuesday and crashed into the bridge, sending people and vehicles into the frigid Patapsco River.

The six missing people are believed to have been part of a construction crew repairing potholes on the bridge, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a news conference earlier Tuesday.

“We are going to suspend the active search and rescue efforts. Coast Guard’s not going away, none of our partners are going away, but we’re just going to transition to a different phase,” Gilreath said.

Earlier Tuesday, two people were pulled from the Patapsco River, Baltimore City Fire Department Chief James Wallace said. One was not injured and the other was taken to a local trauma center in “very serious condition,” he said. A patient being treated at the University of Maryland Medical Center was discharged later Tuesday, the hospital said in a statement.

Baltimore City Council Member Phylicia Porter told CNN’s Boris Sanchez on Tuesday afternoon a body had been recovered from the river, but later said she misspoke. Col. Roland L. Butler Jr., secretary of Maryland State Police, confirmed during the Tuesday evening news conference that no bodies have been recovered from the river.

Efforts will now shift focus to finding the missing people to provide closure to their families, Butler said.

“At this point, we do not know where they are. But we intend to give it our best effort to help these families find closure,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on “The Source” Tuesday night he and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller had spent “quite a bit of time” with the families of the six people now presumed dead and “prayed with them, and we prayed over them and we prayed for them.”

“The strength of these families, it really is remarkable, because what they really did was they reminded us who these individuals were — that they weren’t just special workers who were doing important work for the city and for the state. But they were people who were husbands, and sons, and fathers, and brothers-in-law,” the governor told Collins. “This is a really devastated community of families and so we each want them to know we’re here for them always.”

The US Coast Guard is searching for potentially hazardous materials among damaged shipping containers that were on board the crashed vessel, according to a US government document obtained by CNN and a US official familiar with the matter.

Thirteen damaged containers, “some with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] and/or hazardous materials [HAZMAT] contents” are being examined by an elite Coast Guard team, according to an unclassified memo from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The team is also examining the ship’s manifest to determine if any materials on board may pose a health risk, the official said.

About 1.8 million gallons of “marine diesel spill potential” from the crashed ship is also being monitored by federal officials, according to the CISA memo. Estimates like that are a “worst case scenario,” the US official told CNN, adding “lots would have to go wrong now for all that fuel to spill.”

LIVE UPDATES: Baltimore bridge collapses after ship collision

The crew of the ship notified officials that it had lost power prior to the crash, Moore said Tuesday morning, noting the warning likely saved lives.

“We’re thankful that between the mayday and the collapse, that we had officials who were able to begin to stop the flow of traffic so more cars were not on the bridge,” Moore said. He called those officials heroes.

Moore noted that the bridge was up to code at the time of the collapse. He said the collapse was a “shocking and heartbreaking” event for the people of Maryland who have used the bridge for 47 years.

Several vehicles are believed to have fallen into the water, including one as large as a tractor-trailer, Kevin Cartwright, director of communications of the Baltimore City Fire Department said early Tuesday.

Search and rescue crews used infrared and sonar technology to “mark” five vehicles under water in the Patapsco River, three of which are believed to be passenger vehicles, Wallace told CNN on Tuesday. There are eight dive teams made up of about 50 divers, working on the rescue effort, he added.

There are no known victims in the water who were in vehicles on the bridge at the time of the accident, Wiedefeld said.

“We have an unspeakable tragedy,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott told CNN.

“There were individuals working on the bridge at the time. There are cars in the water – our fire department has confirmed that as they lead this search-and-rescue mission through sonar. That is where our focus is – it’s about those souls, those people we’re trying to find and get out of this water,” Scott said.

Construction workers contracted with the state transportation agency were doing repair work on the bridge at the time of the collapse, Wiedefeld said Tuesday morning.

State and federal officials have not released information about the identities of any of the six missing workers, but foreign officials have said some of them are from Mexico and Guatemala.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala said in a statement late Tuesday two of the missing workers are of Guatemalan origin — one is a 26-year-old originally from San Luis, Petén, and the other is a 35-year-old from Camotán, Chiquimula.

The ministry did not name them, but said both were part of a work team “repairing the asphalt on the bridge at the time of the accident.”

Guatemala’s consul general in Maryland is in contact with local authorities and hopes to be able to meet with the brothers of both missing people, the statement said.

Some of those missing are also Mexican nationals, according to Rafael Laveaga, the Chief of the Consular Section of the Mexican Embassy in Washington. He did not say how many are Mexican.

The ship, which hit the bridge just before 1:30 a.m., was the DALI, a Singaporean-flagged container vessel, Coast Guard spokesperson Kimberly Reaves said. It’s about 984-feet long and 157-feet wide, Synergy Group spokesman Pat Adamson told CNN. It was leaving Baltimore when it crashed, according to the company website.

Previously, the US Coast Guard reported it was a 948-foot container ship.

The ship dropped its anchors as part of an emergency procedure before hitting the bridge, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told CNN. The vessel is currently holding its position at the site of the collision and is in a stable condition and all 22 of the ship’s crew members are safe and accounted for, the agency added.

Lights on the ship flickered and a dark plume of smoke could be seen billowing from it before it veered towards a bridge pillar shortly before impact, CNN analysis of data from MarineTraffic shows.

No crew members on the ship were injured, ship management company Synergy Group said a statement.

Ship’s pilot did ‘everything that he could have done,’ pilots association official says

The pilot of the ship did “everything that he could have done” to both slow the vessel down and keep it from drifting toward the bridge, according to Clay Diamond, executive director and general counsel of the American Pilots Association.

Diamond told CNN he has been in close communication with the Association of Maryland Pilots regarding what unfolded on the Dali cargo ship in the moments leading up to the crash.

“Just minutes before the bridge, there was a total blackout on the ship, meaning that the ship lost engine power and electrical power, it was a complete blackout,” Diamond said.

The pilot quickly gave a string of orders, calling for a hard rudder to port – as far left as possible – and for the anchor to be dropped. The pilot was the one who contacted the pilot dispatch office to shut down traffic to the bridge, Diamond said.

“Those were all the appropriate steps but it happened so quickly and with so little lead time … neither one of those maneuvers were enough,” said Diamond.

Maritime pilots, who are required to be licensed, temporarily board a ship and help guide the vessel as it maneuvers through local waters. Pilot training programs are extensive and rigorous, according to Diamond, requiring years of experience navigating ships on the water, classroom simulations, and working under the supervision of licensed pilots.

A former pilot for the Association of Maryland Pilots told CNN once a pilot boards a vessel, they are responsible for guiding the ship in or out of the Baltimore harbor.

The captain remains ultimately in charge of the ship and can overrule the pilot if needed. But most of the time, a captain will rely on the pilot’s detailed local knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay, the former seaman explained.

NTSB leading investigation into crash and collapse

Multiple agencies are investigating the crash, though there is currently “absolutely no indication that it was intentional,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley said Tuesday morning.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters Tuesday afternoon her federal agency would be leading the investigation into the crash and collapse with the help of the Coast Guard.

Homendy added a team of 24 — including experts in nautical operations, human performance and engineering — will begin looking into the incident and collect information on the vessel, including obtaining recorders on the ship. But for the moment, she said, “we are standing back to allow the Coast Guard and search and rescue to continue search and rescue operations while we gather information from the command post.”

She did not provide updates on fatalities, the nationality of the crew or the structural integrity of the bridge.

“The NTSB doesn’t speculate, we provide facts,” Homendy said. “So there isn’t a lot we can share right now because the focus has been on the people.”

At the afternoon news conference, the governor thanked first responders for their continued search and rescue efforts and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their “full-throated” support. Moore also thanked US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who he said called him around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to offer help — and Maryland’s congressional delegation.

Buttigieg also addressed reporters, noting the road to recovery and rebuilding will “not be quick” and will certainly be costly. “But we will rebuild,” he said. He also looked to ease fears about bridge safety across the country, calling the Key Bridge collapse “a unique circumstance.”

“I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size,” he said.

The 1.6-mile, four-lane bridge extends over the Patapsco River and serves as the outermost crossing of the Baltimore harbor and an essential link of I-695, or the Baltimore Beltway.

“There is no question that this will be a major and protracted impact to supply chains. It’s too soon to offer estimates on what it will take to clear the channel and reopen the port,” Buttigieg said.

Here are some key developments:

  • Multiple air and marine units have been deployed for the search, and personnel from the local fire and police departments, as well as the Coast Guard and Baltimore FBI are on scene to assist, officials said Tuesday.

  • Scott and Moore declared a state of emergency throughout the city and state Tuesday.

  • Biden called on Congress to support efforts to rebuild the bridge. “It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge,” the president said Tuesday.

  • Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland on Tuesday said he had spoken with the rest of Maryland’s congressional delegation and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to fund recovery efforts. “There’s not a single resource that we will hold off on deploying,” Maryland’s senior senator told reporters.

  • Danish Shipping company Maersk told CNN it chartered the ship, which was carrying Maersk customer cargo. The company said no Maersk personnel were onboard the vessel, which is operated by charter vessel company Synergy Group.

  • The ship has been inspected 27 times since its was built in 2015 and has had two “deficiencies,” including one for structural damage, according to records from the Electronic Quality Shipping Information System.

Multiple agencies are working on a search and rescue effort for at least six people who remain missing after the collapse. - Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Multiple agencies are working on a search and rescue effort for at least six people who remain missing after the collapse. - Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Recovery efforts to begin

Col. Butler, speaking to reporters after the Coast Guard announced it had suspended search and rescue efforts Tuesday night, said surface ships will remain on the river overnight and divers would “begin a more detailed search to do our very best to recover those six missing people” at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

The Maryland State Police secretary noted changing currents, low temperatures, poor visibility, metal and other unknown objects in the river after the crash are among the dangers facing the divers.

“All it takes is one object to strike an individual and all of a sudden, we have a first responder trying to recover another first responder,” Butler added.

He said authorities used sonar and dive teams from various state, local and county agencies in their search.

Earlier Tuesday, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski also said conditions in the river would be difficult for search and rescue efforts.

“We’re talking about a deep channel port. It’s 40, 50 feet of water, strong currents,” Olszewski told CNN. “The weather is windy, the water is cold. And so we certainly worry about those who are in the water, not to mention the fall from the bridge.”

All traffic is being detoured away from the bridge, said the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Video of the collision shows a towering boat headed directly toward one of the bridge’s support columns before colliding with it, sending a massive stretch of the bridge crashing into the water below in mere seconds. The impact immediately triggered the collapse of adjacent portions of the bridge.

The crash sent large plumes of smoke and fire into the air and part of the bridge appeared to collapse over the front of the boat, video footage showed. Dark smoke continued to rise into the air for several minutes.

The bridge’s namesake, Francis Scott Key, is believed to have sat near the site of the bridge as he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, inspiring him to write the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said a body was recovered from the river, citing Baltimore City Council Member Phylicia Porter. Porter later said she misspoke.

CNN’s Allison Gordon, Flora Charner, Amy Simonson, Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Kit Maher, Holly Yan, Elizabeth Wolfe, Rebekah Riess, Holmes Lybrand, Sahar Akbarzai, Andy Rose, Chris Boyette, AnneClaire Stapleton, Louis Mian and Majlie de Puy Kamp contributed to this report.

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