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April 11, 2024

Bridges Don't Need to Burn

By Aidan Pool
Staff Writer

On March 26, a container ship going 9 miles per hour struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. The impact immediately sent the bridge tumbling down. Six construction workers are presumed dead after an unsuccessful search. The reason for the crash? The ship had lost power four minutes before reaching the bridge. As any experienced mariner will tell you: once you’ve lost power, you are at the mercy of the current. 

Several small details  surrounding the  tragedy have been underreported. Firstly, the ship was fully loaded. A fully loaded ship is a lot harder to slow and stop than an unloaded ship, whether that’s forward and backward or if it is swinging left and right. Secondly, the shipping channel that the vessel was in is roughly 700 feet wide, which is not a lot of real estate to work with should something go awry. However, the largest under-discussed detail is from the time that the ship lost power to the time it struck the bridge was roughly four minutes. Four short minutes. There is no way that a ship is going to stop in four minutes. There’s not enough time to get a crew out to drop anchor in time. It’s very similar to seeing a traffic jam and not having any brakes. 


There has been an uptick of fear on social media from the general public surrounding their own bridges. Consider the Mackinac Bridge, which constantly has freights pass under it. Should there be reason to be concerned? The short answer is no. The chances of something like this happening are very low for several reasons. Accidents happen, but the crew and any pilots that may board a given vessel are trained to be able to handle situations where things go wrong. In the case of the Mackinac Bridge in particular, the channel that the freighters use does not see the vessel getting as close to a support structure as the channel in Baltimore. 


It is very rare that something like the accident in Baltimore happens. In the entirety of American maritime history, there have been seven instances of a vessel striking a bridge and causing it to collapse in some capacity. Going forward, there are rumors that there will be tweaks in construction to make sure that bridges cannot get hit. One method is a man-made island around bridge supports so that the vessel runs aground before it can hit the bridge. As long as it does not block the channel, all involved would be in favor of this. 

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