Another Bridge, Another Barge, Another Disaster 

Silvio Ligutti /
Silvio Ligutti /

In the early hours of March 26, the cargo ship Dali collided with a support pillar of the famous Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland. The impact caused the bridge to collapse, prompting a state of emergency in the city. The ship, loaded with cargo, had just begun a 27-day journey to Sri Lanka. Audible alarms were heard on the ship’s bridge audio, and the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) malfunctioned. As a result, the ship lost all power and crashed into the bridge, toppling it and debilitating a major American port. 

Now, just a scant six weeks later, a similar accident happened at a Texas bridge that connects Galveston and Pelican Island. An oil barge struck a pillar on the Pelican Island Causeway Bridge, closing the only access to Pelican Island and spilling oil into the waters. 

Unlike the Fort McHenry Bridge, however, the incident was minor. The pillar struck by the Martin Petroleum barge only supported an unused section of the railway. While it’s unclear how much oil was spilled, there were no injuries and little economic impact on the state. 

Two incidents would hardly seem like cause for concern, but they are part of a recent string of bridge collisions across the globe. In late February, a cargo ship collided with China’s Lixinsha Bridge in the Pearl River Delta, which is situated in the southern Guangzhou province. This area is a vital international shipping hub representing the country’s industrial core. 

Photographs captured after the incident showed that the bridge was split into two sections. According to reports from state-controlled broadcaster CCTV, concerns about the bridge’s structure had led to plans for reinforcement work, which had been repeatedly delayed in recent years. 

Additionally, a month earlier, a large cargo ship struck the Zárate–Brazo Largo Bridges over the Prana River in Argentina, as reported by the now-defunct government-run news agency Télam. This collision caused severe damage to the ship, although the bridge remained intact. 

The reasons behind the collisions vary wildly but point to the need to reevaluate bridges, the ships passing under them, and, most importantly, the crews operating those ships. 

In recent decades, the size of container ships has increased to lower shipping expenses and minimize pollution. Consequently, these larger vessels now pose a greater risk to bridges and other port infrastructure, which has not been updated to meet the increased size of the boats. In addition, the increased size of these ships amplifies even the slightest error in human judgment. 

With larger ships, there is a heightened capacity for considerable damage during accidents and increased engineering and system complexities in safeguarding ports against collision. The captains and crews should be far more mindful of potential disasters when navigating these enormous vessels. 

The event in China revealed that the ship collided with the central part of the bridge rather than its support columns. This implies that the ship’s height was not adequately considered or that the river conditions were unsuitable for such a large vessel. 

A preliminary investigation into the Zárate–Brazo Largo Bridges revealed that the “En May“ captain lost control of the vessel” before it turned sideways and collided with one of the supports. 

The Dali collision involved a ship that had experienced four electrical issues, one occurring just ten hours before it left port and another happening shortly after the ship left port. The first blackout was due to a crewmember mistakenly closing an exhaust damper, causing the ship’s engine to stall. The second occurred when crew members changed the ship’s electrical configuration while it recovered from the first issue. The third and fourth involved a loss of power due to the tripping of electrical breakers. The ship should never have left port. 

But human error is not entirely to blame. The structural integrity of the bridges has been called into question as well. 

Many of the bridges in the United States, over 600,000 in total, are more than 50 years old and haven’t been adequately maintained, according to Elias Ali, a civil and environmental engineer at Case Western Reserve University. About 7.5 percent of these bridges are considered structurally deficient. Today’s cargo ships are bigger and faster than they were 50 years ago, which means they hit bridges with more force. Ali explains that many important U.S. bridges aren’t built to handle the impact of these larger ships. 

When human error meets aging infrastructure, the results will always be catastrophic. The combination of human error, poorly maintained bridges, and the ever-increasing size of ships proves the urgent need for updated maritime regulations and rules.