Recovery efforts continue for 6 construction workers presumed dead after Baltimore bridge collapse

By Elizabeth Wolfe and Yahya Abou-Ghazala, CNN

CNN  —  The US Coast Guard has suspended search and rescue efforts for six people who were on the Francis Scott Key Bridge when it collapsed early Tuesday following a major cargo boat collision. Recovery efforts are now underway for the missing people, who are presumed dead. 

Here’s the latest.

  • Overnight search deemed unsafe: Search and recovery operations were halted overnight due to dangerous conditions, including “very unstable” sections of the steel bridge and shipping containers hanging from the cargo ship, Baltimore City Fire Chief James Wallace told CNN. Divers will return to the water Wednesday to search for the six missing. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Tuesday, “We’re still fully committed to making sure that we’re going to use every single asset to now bring a sense of closure to the families.”
  • Coast Guard assessing hazmat threat: The US Coast Guard is examining damaged shipping containers, some containing potentially hazardous materials, from the crashed vessel, according to a US government document obtained by CNN and a US official familiar with the matter. The team is also examining the ship’s manifest to determine if any materials on board may pose a health risk, the official said.
  • Investigators to collect evidence: The National Transportation Safety Board is leading an investigation into the incident and will likely board the vessel Wednesday to begin evidence collection, Chair Jennifer Homendy told CNN. There is “absolutely no indication that it was intentional,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley said Tuesday.
  • People from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico among the missing: Miguel Luna, an immigrant from El Salvador, has been identified as one of the missing, according to the nonprofit CASA. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala said two Guatemalans are also unaccounted for: a 26-year-old from San Luis, Petén, and a 35-year-old from Camotán, Chiquimula. A Mexican Embassy official in Washington said some missing are also Mexican, though he did not say how many. Local authorities have yet to confirm the identities of those missing.
  • Ship blacked out before crash: Just minutes before impact, there was a “total blackout” of engine and electrical power on the ship, according to Clay Diamond, executive director of the American Pilots Association. Diamond pointed out that while the lights on the boat could be seen turning back on – likely due to an emergency generator – the ship’s engines never recovered. “It’s not unheard of for there to be an engine and generator casualty like it happened here, it just happened at the exact wrong time and place,” he said.
  • Reconstruction has hefty price tag: US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said rebuilding the bridge will “not be quick” and will certainly be costly. President Joe Biden also called on Congress to support recovery efforts and said he intends for the federal government to cover the full repair costs.
  • Vital shipping port remains closed: After search efforts conclude, a top priority will be clearing the channel so the Port of Baltimore can reopen, US Sen. Chris Van Hollen told CNN Tuesday. He noted around four ships cannot leave the port and approximately 20 others are waiting to get in. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg said there is “no question that this will be a major and protracted impact to supply chains. It’s too soon to offer estimates on what it will take to clear the channel and reopen the port.”

The Key Bridge was toppled shortly before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday after the hulking shipping container lost power and smashed into one of the bridge’s support columns, sending people and cars into the frigid Patapsco River.

Eight construction workers were believed to be mending potholes on the bridge when it fell, according to officials. Two survived and were pulled from the river but the remaining six are presumed dead due to the prolonged search time and cold water conditions, they said.

Luna, the missing El Salvadoran immigrant, headed to his construction job Monday evening and has not come home, according to CASA, a nonprofit that provides services to working-class and immigrant families.

Luna is “a husband, a father of three, and has called Maryland his home for over 19 years,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

LIVE UPDATES: Baltimore bridge collapses after ship collision

All 22 crew members of the container ship – a Singaporean-flagged vessel named DALI – are safe and accounted for, according to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.

But the vessel – and all of its contents – still sit in the middle of the channel, its bow draped with massive pieces of the mangled steel bridge.

Federal officials are monitoring about 1.8 million gallons of fuel inside the ship for its “spill potential,” according to an unclassified memo from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. But the US official familiar with the matter told CNN “lots would have to go wrong” for that amount of fuel to spill.

An elite Coast Guard team is examining 13 damaged containers from the crashed vessel, “some with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] and/or hazardous materials [HAZMAT] contents,” the CISA memo said. The team is also analyzing the ship’s manifest to determine what was on board and if any materials could pose a health risk, the source said.

Gov. Wes Moore called the collapse a “catastrophic and horrific occurrence” for the state and the families of those missing, who he was able to speak with Tuesday.

“They reminded us who these individuals were – that they weren’t just special workers who were doing important work for the city and for the state, but they were people who were husbands and sons and fathers and brothers-in-law,” Moore said. “So this is a really devastated community of families.”

Pieces of the Francis Scott Key Bridge are draped over cargo ship Dali after its collapse on Tuesday.

Ship’s pilot did ‘everything he could,’ pilot association official says

The pilot of the ship did “everything that he could have done” to both slow the vessel down and keep it from drifting toward the bridge once it lost power, said Diamond, the American Pilots Association director.

Diamond told CNN he has been in close communication with the Association of Maryland Pilots regarding what unfolded on the Dali cargo ship in the moments leading up to the crash.

The pilot quickly gave a string of orders, calling for the anchor to be dropped and the rudder to be pulled as far left as possible, Diamond said. He also called the dispatch office to shut down traffic on the bridge – an action several officials have credited with saving lives.

“We’re thankful that between the mayday and the collapse, that we had officials who were able to begin to stop the flow of traffic so more cars were not on the bridge,” Gov. Moore said Tuesday.

But the extraordinary size of the vessel and its proximity to the bridge meant there was little hope for avoiding the crash, Diamond said.

“Those were all the appropriate steps but it happened so quickly and with so little lead time … neither one of those maneuvers were enough,” said Diamond.

Maritime pilots, who are required to be licensed, temporarily board a ship and help guide the vessel as it maneuvers through local waters. Pilot training programs are extensive and rigorous, according to Diamond, requiring years of experience navigating ships on the water, classroom simulations, and working under the supervision of licensed pilots.

Investigators will comb ship for evidence

The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the crash investigation, but investigators are allowing time for search efforts to continue before they assess the crash site, said the agency’s chair, Jennifer Homendy.

NTSB investigators plan to collect evidence from the vessel, analyze the bridge’s structure and examine debris that fell into to the Patapsco River and onto the ship itself, said Homendy.

A specialized team will also determine who was controlling the vessel and who was on the ship’s bridge at the time of the crash, she said.

As officials have said the crash appears to be an accident, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg looked to ease fears about bridge safety across the country, calling the Key Bridge collapse “a unique circumstance.”

“I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size,” he said Tuesday.

CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Flora Charner, Sarah Engel, Jack Forrest, Allison Gordon, Elise Hammond, Jennifer Henderson, Betsy Klein, Jamiel Lynch, Sean Lyngaas, Mary Kay Mallonee, Lauren Mascarenhas, Pete Muntean, Tori B. Powell, Rachel Ramirez, Amy Simonson, Aditi Sangal and Michael Williams contributed to this report.

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