A global disaster unfolds on a bridge over a river in Baltimore

By Ray Sanchez, CNN

CNN  — 

When it opened 47 years and six days ago on “a spectacularly clear” March morning, the steel-arched Francis Scott Key Bridge was hailed as an engineering wonder offering “some of the most spectacular vistas in Maryland.”

“You could almost see forever,” read an editorial in The Evening Sun newspaper, noting the breathtaking sights of Baltimore’s skyline, the bustling harbor, historic Fort McHenry and the old Bethlehem Steel mill in Sparrows Point.

Despite construction delays and massive cost overruns, the editorial said “you can see it as a proud completing buckle in the Baltimore belt,” referring to the final link in the heavily traveled route that runs around the city.

About 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, under a nearly full moon and clear skies, large sections of a bridge that took five years to build disappeared in seconds when a 213-million-pound loaded cargo vessel nearly the length of the Eiffel Tower struck a crucial support column the Key Bridge could not stand without.

The iconic span named for the author of the American national anthem snapped under the night sky and hurtled into the cold and murky waters of the Patapsco River, killing six overnight immigrant laborers fixing potholes on the bridge. Two people were pulled out alive from the water.

“Every single day I would see the bridge. And I go out there … and the bridge is gone,” said Jayme Krause, 32, who was working at a nearby Amazon factory that shook when the ship hit the bridge. “You don’t want to think about … people who are dying literally hundreds of feet from you. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things.”

On Wednesday, two bridge workers were found trapped underwater in a red pickup, according to the Maryland State Police. For now search efforts have ended for four additional workers – who are presumed dead – because other submerged vehicles sit under concrete and other debris, making it unsafe for divers.

The collapse, captured in dramatic live-stream video, has reverberated beyond the Port of Baltimore – one of the nation’s largest for international cargo and a major hub for vehicles, containers and commodities.

It is an international disaster that has touched lives throughout the world: the Latin American bridge workers who made their home around Baltimore; more than 20 crew members, who are safe, are from India; the Singapore-flagged cargo vessel Dali, which was docked in Baltimore for two days and chartered by Danish shipping giant Maersk to carry the cargo for its customers.

Their stories all intersect on an old bridge over a river in Baltimore.

“This is just more than a bridge to Baltimoreans,” said City Council President Nick Mosby, noting that working-class neighborhoods and shipping-related industries that sprouted up nearby all rely on the port.

‘A total blackout on the ship’

The day before the 984-foot-long vessel departed the Port of Baltimore, the director of Apostleship of the Sea Catholic ministry took the ship’s captain shopping in preparation for a 28-day journey to Sri Lanka.

“I’ve been in this ministry for 15 years now, and if there’s one thing … that you learn working with seafarers, is that they’re deeply, deeply caring people,” said Andy Middleton, a former Baltimore police officer who now heads the volunteer nonprofit that ministers to mariners.

On the way to a Walmart the captain told Middleton the ship was taking a more circuitous route around the tip of South Africa to avoid the coast of Yemen, where Houthis have been attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.

“It was a safer way to go,” said Middleton, who described the ministry as a friendly face to seafarers passing through the port. A volunteer took several of the Indian crew members shopping on Sunday.

At 12:39 a.m. Tuesday, the Dali unmoored from the port for the start of its long journey, according to Marcel Muise, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator in charge, citing information gleaned from the ship’s voyage data recorder (VDR).

In the middle of the night a pair of tugboats initially towed the Dali away from the Seagirt Marine Terminal, where 20-story cranes dominate the port’s skyline. Two Chesapeake Bay pilots on board provided navigational commands to help guide the gigantic vessel away from the unfamiliar port.

“It pulled away from the dock with tugs into the turning basin,” said Scott Cowan, president of the Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 in Baltimore – whose members secure loads on and off the deck, operate cranes and run the boxes throughout the yard.

“Once it was in the channel, the tugboats were cut loose.”

In the main shipping channel, the Dali headed southeast toward the Key Bridge before it began veering to the right. At 1:24 a.m. the ship’s lights flickered, according to the video.

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