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Cargo ship outages on the day before the Baltimore bridge collision may have impacted ship’s operations, NTSB chief says

By Gregory Wallace and Eric Levenson, CNN

(CNN) — The cargo ship Dali experienced two blackouts while moored in the Port of Baltimore a day before its catastrophic collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and efforts to resolve those blackouts may have impacted the ship’s operations, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said in a congressional hearing Wednesday.

After the two in-port blackouts on March 25, the ship’s crew switched to a different transformer and set of breakers from those that had been in use for several months, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. That may have impacted the ship’s operations when it left the port a day later, she said.

“Switching breakers is not unusual but may have affected operations the very next day on the accident voyage,” Homendy said.

The comments, which add further context to the focus of the NTSB investigation, came during a hearing for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure reviewing and analyzing the federal response to the collapse of the Key bridge on March 26.

On Tuesday, the NTSB released a 24-page preliminary report detailing investigators’ early factual findings. The Dali struck the bridge with enough force to bring down the 1.6-mile-long steel structure, killing six construction workers on the bridge and severing access to critical shipping routes in and out of the Port of Baltimore.

The report found the Dali was just three ships’ lengths from the bridge when it suffered a pair of catastrophic electrical failures, which caused several pumps required for the ship’s propeller and rudder to stop working. The emergency generator activated but was not configured to power the ship, the report said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Homendy described the ship as “essentially drifting” before crashing into the bridge.

The NTSB report found that the Dali had experienced two blackouts a day earlier while still moored in the port.

“The NTSB is still investigating the electrical configuration following the first in-port blackout and potential impacts on the events during the accident voyage,” the report states.

Homendy said Wednesday the NTSB has been working closely with Hyundai, which manufactures the ship equipment, to try to replicate some of the electrical problems of that day and understand better what happened.

An NTSB preliminary report does not conclude a probable cause. Those findings will be part of a final report that could take investigators up to two years to complete.

Officials estimate cost and timeline of replacement bridge

The House committee hearing Wednesday featured testimony from Homendy, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, Army Corps of Engineers Major Gen. William H. Graham and Federal Highway Administration Administrator Shailen Bhatt.

The officials offered several estimates for the steps ahead. The Dali is expected to be refloated and removed from the port early next week, Gautier said, and the full channel is on track to be open by the end of May, Graham said.

Further, a new replacement bridge is estimated to be open in 2028 and cost about $1.7 to $1.9 billion, Bhatt said.

In the meantime, Homendy recommended that bridge operators and owners reexamine how US bridges are protected from incoming ships, noting the increasing size of cargo ships over the decades.

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

Video footage from moments before the crash showed plumes of black smoke coming from the 213-million pound vessel as well as the lights flickering on and off.

The NTSB report details the frantic efforts of those on the Dali to stop the ship and warn those on the bridge of potential disaster. The report also highlights the near-catastrophic experiences of a crew member on the ship and a road maintenance inspector on the bridge.

The crew member was on the bow of the ship at the time of the crash. “(He) told investigators that, as he was releasing the brake on the port anchor, he had to escape from the falling bridge before he was able to reapply the brake,” the report states.

The inspector on the bridge had been walking the span when the ship struck. “He ran north and made it to the nearest surviving span before the rest of the bridge collapsed,” the report states.

Six construction workers who were filling potholes on the bridge were killed in the disaster. The victims were immigrants from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras who worked to support their families.

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