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A human, environmental and economic emergency response to the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

A human, environmental and economic emergency response to the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

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A human, environmental and economic emergency response to the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

On March 26, the container ship Dali in Baltimore’s industrial harbour , causing it to catastrophically collapse. Eight highway maintenance workers were . Two were , and two bodies . Four workers remain missing, and are now .

The ship-bridge collision was a technological disaster, defined as an event caused by  or human error in controlling or handling the technology.

In this case, the root cause of the disaster involved the interaction of two types of transportation technologies: a moving container ship and a fixed bridge.

A history of bridge collapses

The disaster is not unprecedented — between 1960 to 2015 there have been  due to collisions by ships or barges.

On Feb. 22, in Guangzhou, south China, a container ship rammed into a bridge pillar leading to the subsequent , and killing five people.

A massive container ship crashed into the Lixinsha Bridge in southern China on Feb. 22, 2024. (Lu Hanxin/Xinhua via AP)

The collapse of  serves as another stark reminder that despite our technological prowess, accidents involving transportation technology will continue to occur when we least expect them.

The immediate response

The immediate response started with a mayday call from the troubled ship causing police to take action to prevent more cars from going onto the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders received  of a container ship colliding with the bridge, and immediately deployed .

The first 24 hours after the collapse focused on saving more lives, to no avail. People who survived the  into the Patapsco River then faced .

If not immediately rescued, chances of survival in cold river water become difficult due to  setting in.

Tons of submerged bridge wreckage and tidal currents created  for rescue operations. After an extensive search and rescue effort until sunset on March 26, the next-day emergency response activity transitioned to the grim task of recovery of the dead.

About eight hours after the collapse, the mayor of Baltimore declared a . The governor then issued , declaring a state of emergency for Maryland.

The Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest harbours in the U.S. (Shutterstock)

A  allows officials to temporarily use extraordinary powers. Suspension of laws and regulations, quick redirection of funds, rapid deployment of personnel and the facilitation of federal aid are all reasons why a state of emergency would be declared.

The collision caused all maritime traffic to be stopped —  as a port of entry for foreign goods. Most of the Port of Baltimore’s shipping terminals are located within .

In this case, the emergency declarations  around competitive bidding to speed the eventual bridge rebuilding project.

Pollution and debris clean-up

Immediately after the collision, response operations include preventing environmental contamination. As the distressed cargo ship was departing to the Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka, it had on board about . Out of the thousands of containers being transported, .

Removing the damaged steel latticework of the bridge’s trusses off the bow of the ship will be a challenging feat.

Debris now blocks navigation along the Fort McHenry Channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has started  to assess what needs to be done for debris removal.

The debris removal effort will be especially complex as sensitivity is required. In and around the same area where the  is taking place, rescue officials were searching for bodies — the .

The  has responsibilities involving the recovery of the bodies of the missing highway workers.

Unified command response

Unified command is an emergency management technique applied when .

The Fort McHenry navigation channel and the I-695 bridge itself fall under multiple local, state and federal jurisdictional responsibilities. On March 27, a  was established to co-ordinate emergency responses.

Sadly, within the first 48 hours search and rescue transitioned to search and recovery. Operations will be moving in the direction of salvage and .

Going forward, the main priority is clearing the shipping channel to reopen the Port of Baltimore. True to form to the characteristics of a technological disaster, it will take a while to determine the scope of the impacts.

For the immediate future, timelines for when the Baltimore Harbour can return to normal will remain elusive.

By Associate Professor Jack Rozdilsky, Department of Disaster and Emergency Management, York University.

This article is republished from .