May tugboats have helped avert the bridge collapse tragedy in Baltimore?

May tugboats have helped avert the bridge collapse tragedy in Baltimore?

With the 95,000-ton cargo ship Dali powerless and hurtling helplessly towards the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the harbor pilot commanding the vessel had simply minutes to make his final, determined makes an attempt to keep away from catastrophe. He declared misery, dropped anchor and, notably, known as for assist from close by tugboats.

Two 5,000-horsepower tugs, which solely minutes earlier had helped information the ship out of its berth on the Port of Baltimore and peeled off, shortly turned again and raced towards the Dali. Nevertheless it was too late. The huge ship stacked with cargo slammed into the bridge within the predawn darkness Tuesday, toppling the span and killing six construction workers.

Whether or not these tugs may have averted the catastrophe with the Dali already uncontrolled is debatable. However maritime specialists interviewed by The Related Press say they may have made a distinction if the tugs had caught by the ship longer, escorting it on its 18-minute journey via the port’s deep-water channel, ready to see it drifting astray and probably nudge or tow it again in line.

Such prolonged tugboat escorts aren’t required and even customary in Baltimore or at many different U.S. ports, largely due to the prices they might add for shippers. However with the growing measurement of cargo ships and the risk they pose to bridges and different vital infrastructure, some are questioning whether or not they need to be.

“I’m a giant fan of tug escorts,” mentioned Joseph Ahlstrom, a member of the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of the State of New York, which regulates the state’s harbor pilots. “If utilized early sufficient and successfully, sure, a tug escort may forestall a collision with the bridge or with one other ship, or going aground.”

“Going to sea is hazard,” added Ahlstrom, who additionally teaches on the State College of New York’s Maritime Faculty. “However for those who’re going to go to sea, for those who’re going to place your self in danger, do no matter it takes to reduce threat.”

FILE - This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the Francis Scott Key Bridge struck by the container ship Dali in Baltimore, Md., on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Maxar Technologies via AP, File)

FILE – This satellite tv for pc picture offered by Maxar Applied sciences exhibits the Francis Scott Key Bridge struck by the container ship Dali in Baltimore, Md., on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Maxar Applied sciences through AP, File)

Maritime specialists instructed the AP that the Baltimore catastrophe highlights how every particular person port makes its personal tugboat guidelines, leading to a patchwork throughout the nation, and the way competitors amongst ports for enterprise from cost-conscious transport firms has trumped requires prolonged tugboat escorts that may add tens of 1000’s of {dollars} to each transit.

Baltimore’s port, operated by the state of Maryland, ordinarily makes use of tugboats to assist maneuver massive ships out of their docks and doesn’t require prolonged tugboat escorts into the port’s channel and broader Chesapeake Bay except ordered by native harbor pilots or the U.S. Coast Guard over security issues tied to climate, site visitors, cargo or mechanical points. Shippers may request tugs.

Within the case of the Dali, two state harbor pilots boarded the Singaporean-flagged ship to take over navigation via the port because the vessel set out on a visit to Sri Lanka. Two tugboats, the Eric McAllister and the Bridget McAllister, guided the massive vessel out of the tight areas of the dock after which launched when the ship was safely within the channel.

However inside minutes, based on satellite tv for pc knowledge that tracks vessel site visitors, the 984-foot (300-meter) Dali started to float out of its lane and veered extra sharply earlier than slamming into one of many principal pillars of the bridge, which is a vital conduit for Baltimore truckers and commuters.

The Nationwide Transportation Security Board, which is investigating the crash, mentioned a overview of the ship’s voyage knowledge recorder confirmed the pilot’s 1:26 a.m. name for assist from close by tugs took place 4 minutes earlier than influence.

“One of many issues that was onerous for me to imagine is that they didn’t require tugs on the vessel because it was traversing in direction of the bridge,” mentioned David Heindel, president of the Seafarers Worldwide Union, which represents U.S. service provider mariners.

“Some ports require tugs, relying on the vessel, often tankers. You see the place tugs need to escort ships out and in of port, particularly slim ports,” Heindel mentioned. “In the long run, I feel that that could be precisely what occurs within the Port of Baltimore.”

The Maryland Port Administration didn’t instantly reply to requests for remark. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman mentioned the service doesn’t direct tug operations within the port and the Dali’s departure “is the standard outbound situation for most of these cargo ships.”

The Dali is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and managed by the Singapore-based Synergy Marine Group. Synergy spokesman Darrell Wilson mentioned the pilots information the corporate’s ships out and in and that he didn’t understand how tugs are coordinated.

The Eric McAllister and Bridget McAllister are muscular machines. Referred to as tractor tugs, they don’t simply nudge ships. The Eric McAllister, the larger of the 2, is 98 toes (30 meters) lengthy and geared up with a thick metal cable and winch that, when connected to even a big cargo ship, can probably pull it away from hassle.

FILE - In this photo provided by the Maryland National Guard, the cargo ship Dali is stuck under part of the structure of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship hit the bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore. (Maryland National Guard via AP, File)

FILE – On this picture offered by the Maryland Nationwide Guard, the cargo ship Dali is caught underneath a part of the construction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship hit the bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore. (Maryland Nationwide Guard through AP, File)

The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound spurred Congress and some states to require tug escorts for oil tankers. However these restricted necessities had been geared toward defending wildlife from spills, not safeguarding vital infrastructure equivalent to bridges.

Jennifer Carpenter, president of the American Waterways Operators, a commerce group that represents tugboat and barge firms, mentioned that given the Dali tragedy, she expects regulators to look intently at whether or not extra stringent tugboat escort necessities are wanted.

However she mentioned tugboats are only one a part of a posh security matrix that additionally consists of concrete fenders for bridges and emergency response techniques.

The provision of tugboats is proscribed and utilizing them extra steadily entails dangers, she mentioned, primarily air pollution and elevated sea site visitors.

“The very last thing we need to do is have two tugs escorting each vessel,” Carpenter mentioned. “That will have large implications for the effectivity and security of our waterways, that are already fairly crowded.”

Some ports have tried to spice up vessel escort necessities. However they typically face resistance from shippers, who’re underneath strain from prospects to maneuver items as cheaply as doable.

In 2004, California’s Legislature handed a invoice requiring tug escorts for chemical tanker ships in San Francisco Bay, however it was vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger amid protests by the transport trade over value issues.

“Tugs are a giant upfront value and plenty of firms don’t need to pay for that,” mentioned Sal Mercogliano, who writes a extensively adopted transport weblog. “And if Baltimore begins mandating it, you’re going to see ships go to Norfolk, Philadelphia, New York — wherever is most cost-effective.”

McAllister Towing, which operates the tugboats that guided the Dali, can cost $15,000 or extra for a number of of its ships to guide a big cargo vessel out of its berth, based on a current price sheet, with extra costs for prolonged escorts.

That could be small change for a giant transport firm however the prices can add up.

John Konrad, a licensed captain, mentioned there’s an “unstated stress” between transport firms and pilots over what number of tugboats ought to be used and the way lengthy they continue to be with a seagoing vessel.

“The pilots would love, in a really perfect world, to have further tugs with them on a regular basis till the ship will get out to the ocean,” mentioned Konrad, founder and CEO of gCaptain, an internet site for maritime professionals.

“However the transport firms don’t need to pay for these tugs,” he mentioned. “So there’s all the time this push and pull.”

FILE - In this image from video released by the National Transportation and Safety Board, the container ship Dali is stuck under part of the structure of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship hit the bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore. (NTSB via AP, File)

FILE – On this picture from video launched by the Nationwide Transportation and Security Board, the container ship Dali is caught underneath a part of the construction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship hit the bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore. (NTSB through AP, File)


Related Press reporter Josh Funk contributed.


Contact AP’s international investigative group at [email protected] or

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