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US & World

Black Swan? Baltimore Bridge Collapse Exacerbates Global Shipping Crisis

“This is a major disaster …”

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“The most costly disruptions always happen when something we take completely for granted stops working for a minute.”

That was the assessment of fictitious U.S. president Jed Bartlet upon hearing of a presumptive positive case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (a.k.a. “mad cow disease”) during a 2001 episode of Aaron Sorkin‘s The West Wing.

It is no doubt an assessment shared by business and political leaders along the eastern seaboard as they grapple with the as-yet-unexplained destruction of a major thoroughfare and the sudden shuttering of one of America’s busiest seaports.

We don’t yet know all the dominos that will fall in the aftermath of this week’s dramatic collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, but we know it’s going to take substantially longer than a minute for things to sort themselves out. Also, the context in which this disaster unfolded – a period of peak uncertainty as it relates to global shipping – is critical to consider.

First, though, the tragedy.

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Dali, a Singapore-flagged container ship chartered by global shipping giant Maersk, struck Baltimore’s iconic steel-truss bridge early Tuesday morning (March 26, 2024) after reportedly suffering a “complete blackout.” The ship – a 980-foot Panamax vessel – was less than an hour into its 27-day journey to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Built in 2015 in South Korea, Dali was carrying more than 3,000 containers when it crashed into the bridge – which until yesterday carried an estimated 34,000 vehicles across the Patapsco River each day.

Dali had arrived in Baltimore on March 23 after making calls in New York and Portsmouth, Virginia.

As it approached the Key Bridge departing its final U.S. call, the ship lost all electronic and engine power – including steering capability – leaving it adrift in the river. Generators briefly restored power to the vessel, but control over its navigation was never regained. Harbor pilots on board the ship ordered its rudder turned hard to port and dropped anchor. They also issued a mayday call – which enabled local officials to keep any additional vehicles from attempting to cross the bridge.

“There’s a ship approaching that has lost their steering,” a Maryland Transportation Authority official alerted local authorities. “Until you’ve got that under control, we’ve got to stop all traffic.”

Unfortunately, a road crew was repairing potholes on the bridge at the time of the collision (officially an “allision” as the bridge is, or was, a stationary object). Six members of this crew are missing and presumed dead. The ship’s twenty-two crew members – and the two local harbor pilots who were onboard at the time of the incident – were unharmed with the exception of one who was hospitalized with a non life-threatening injury.

The ship’s blackouts – and the catastrophic impact that followed – can be seen on the video below.

(Click to View)

(FITSTube)

At the 1:24 mark of the clip (1:24:32 a.m. EDT), power on the Dali goes out for approximately one minute – returning at the 2:23 mark (at 1:25:30 a.m.). During this time, black smoke begins to billow from the rear of the vessel. At the 3:29 mark of the video (1:26:37 a.m.), power flickers out a second time – this time for a little more than half a minute. At the 4:02 mark (1:27:09 a.m.) it returns.

By then, though, it was too late.

At the 5:40 mark of the video – precisely 1:28:49 a.m. EDT – the Dali struck the southwest main truss-support pillar of the 47-year-old bridge, causing the immediate collapse of its iconic steel arch. Within ten seconds, the entire 1,200-foot long steel span – the third-longest continuous truss bridge in the world – had come crashing down into the lower Patapsco.

Portions of the bridge’s span fell on the Dali – which remains grounded in the river. Meanwhile, access to the Port of Baltimore – one of the nation’s busiest – is nonexistent for the foreseeable future.

(Click to View)

(NTSB)

“Vessel traffic into and out of the Port of Baltimore is suspended until further notice,” a statement (.pdf) from port officials noted. “This does not mean the Port of Baltimore is closed. Trucks are being processed within our marine terminals. At this time we do not know how long vessel traffic will be suspended. As soon as that is determined we will provide an update.”

The collapse of the bridge is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A report published by The Wall Street Journal pointed to “contaminated fuel” as a potential cause of the accident, although that has yet to be confirmed by investigators. Meanwhile retired general and former U.S. national security advisor Michael Flynn raised the specter of foul play, saying “we cannot … take the idea that this was a terrorist attack off the table.”

Flynn referred to the incident as a “black swan” – or an unforeseen, extreme development with profound ripple effects with is retroactively rationalized.

NTSB director Jennifer Homendy indicated investigators’ immediate priority was analyzing Dali‘s voyage data recorder, which is similar to the “black box” of an aircraft.

“It’s a critical piece of our investigation,” Homendy told reporters.

On Tuesday afternoon, NTSB released drone footage of the crash site …

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(NTSB)

While the cause of the accident remains under investigation, one thing is clear: The impact of the bridge collapse – which local residents initially thought was an earthquake – will be seismic.

“This is a major disaster and will create significant problems on the U.S. east coast for U.S. importers and exporters,” Lars Jensen of Vespucci Maritime wrote, adding that container traffic “now has to be routed through other ports in the region.”

Can the surrounding ports absorb the influx?

According to Jensen, Virginia and New York do not have “sufficient capacity to take the spill-over from Baltimore.”

“Additionally this means the cargo already gated into the Baltimore terminals would have to either wait an unknown period for the sealane to reopen, or be gated back out and shifted to a different port,” Jensen added. “Multiple merchant vessels are (also) now ‘trapped’ in the port of Baltimore.”

Baltimore handled 1.1 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers in 2023 – or 21,000 TEUs per week. But the port is also America’s busiest in terms of vehicle imports – moving 570,000 cars last year. Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Suburu, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen are among the automakers expected to be disproportionately impacted by the disruption.

Coal exports, cement imports and sugar imports are also likely to suffer – and the cruise ship industry stands to lose millions of dollars due to its inability to access the port’s cruise ship terminal. The transport of hazardous materials is also likely to be impacted as Maryland law forbids such materials to be transported via tunnel.

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RELATED | TWIN BLOWS BEFALL PORT OF CHARLESTON

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“Baltimore is a huge port and the effects of this will be felt for a long time to come,” one Palmetto State industry expert told me. “Things will get really tough there soon.”

Beyond the impact of the collapse itself is the global climate in which it took place. Rising tensions in the Red Sea – specifically attacks on maritime vessels by radical Islamic Houthi militants – have choked off significant traffic through the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Somali pirates recently took advantage of the distraction caused by the Houthis to start relaunching attacks on vessels off the horn of Africa.

Halfway around the world, another critical global chokepoint is experiencing its own issues.

Lago Gatún – the massive reservoir which lies at the center of the Panama Canal – is currently experiencing historically low water levels. An ongoing drought has resulted in the lake’s surface level dropping nearly five feet below its seasonal norms – which has limited the number of ships that can safely pass.

Last year was the second-driest year on record in the canal zone, and the current drought isn’t expected to let up for at least two more months – meaning canal traffic is expected to continue to be limited for the foreseeable future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and eight children.

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6 comments

Nanker Phelge March 27, 2024 at 1:45 pm

“retired general and former U.S. national security advisor Michael Flynn raised the specter of foul play”

Hey Will, you left out the part about Flynn being a Putin pal, Russia Today employee, foreign agent, and QAnon follower.

Reply
Tom March 27, 2024 at 5:16 pm

He also left our convicted felon.

Reply
Jack March 27, 2024 at 5:53 pm

Why does the right look on with glee any disaster that might derail the economy? It’s almost as if their cult leader said he hoped the economy would crash before the election. Oh, wait he did.

So, I guess we cannot take the idea that this was a MAGA Cult terrorist attack off the table.

Reply
River1187 Top fan March 28, 2024 at 6:19 am

Jesus 2024

Reply
Jesus H. Christ March 28, 2024 at 8:06 am

Verily verily I say unto you, nah man you couldn’t pay me to take that job.

Reply
JustCallMeAva Top fan March 28, 2024 at 8:03 am

Mike Flynn is your go-to source on whether this was an act of terrorism, despite an actual freaking video where it’s pretty damn obvious what happened? I mean, I get it, the GOP has jack shit to run on, other than immigration, and that’s gone belly up for them after they refused to pass a deal because Mac Daddy Trump told them not to. In fact, the GOP Congress has been among the most anemic in getting anything done other than pushing half-baked conspiracy theories and embarrassing themselves on the national and international stage. So now they are all praying on their Donald Trump Bibles that this was some act of terrorism, because what else have they got? The economy is booming, the US has the lowest inflation rate of any 1st world country, and the Dems just flipped a GOP House seat by 30+ freaking points. But does Will have to push every single GOP talking point and conspiracy theory? We’re not MAGAs here Will. We have educations and fully functioning brains.

Reply

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