Washington [US], March 27: A cargo ship lost power and rammed into a major bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday, destroying the span in a matter of seconds and plunging it into the river in a terrifying collapse that could disrupt a vital shipping port in the northeastern United States for months.
Six people are missing, authorities say. The water around the bridge is around 8 degrees Celsius.
The ship's crew issued a mayday call moments before the crash took down the Francis Scott Key Bridge, enabling authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the span, Maryland's governor said.
The ship struck one of the bridge's supports, causing the structure to collapse. It tumbled into the water in a matter of seconds - a shocking spectacle that was captured on video and posted on social media. The vessel caught fire, and thick, black smoke billowed out of it.
With the ship barrelling toward the bridge at "a very, very rapid speed," authorities had just enough time to stop cars from coming over the bridge, Maryland Governor Wes Moore said.
"These people are heroes," Moore said. "They saved lives last night."
The crash happened in the middle of the night, long before the busy morning commute on the bridge that stretches 2.6 km and was used by 12 million vehicles last year.
The six people still unaccounted for were part of a construction crew filling potholes on the bridge, said Paul Wiedefeld, the state's transportation secretary. One of those rescued was taken to a hospital, he said.
Multiple vehicles also went into the water, although authorities did not believe anyone was inside.
Federal inspectors rated the 47-year-old bridge to be in fair condition last June. But the structure did not appear to have pier protection to withstand the crash, experts said.
Synergy Marine Group, which manages the ship, said it was in the control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help navigate vessels safely into ports.
The ship was moving at 8 knots, which is roughly 15 km/hr when it struck the span.
The ship is owned by Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd., which said all crew members, including the two pilots, were accounted for and there were no reports of injuries involving anyone who was on board.
Authorities said sonar had detected vehicles in the water, which is about 15 metres deep.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott described it as "an unthinkable tragedy".
"Never would you think that you would see physically see the Key Bridge tumble down like that - it looked like something out of an action movie," he said.
"And you just think about, most importantly, which is what we all should be thinking about right now, nothing but those families and people that are impacted and those people who are risking their lives right now, for not just Baltimore City and Baltimore County but all over the state, to try to save lives.
"That should be our focus - the preservation of life. Because no one wants to see that happen, let alone someone in their family someone that they know, be injured in an incident like this."
Donald Heinbuch, a retired chief with Baltimore's fire department, said he was startled awake by a deep rumbling that shook his house for several seconds.
"It felt like an earthquake," he said.
He drove to the river's edge and couldn't believe what he saw.
"The ship was there, and the bridge was in the water, like it was blown up," he said.
The bridge spans the Patapsco River at the entrance to a busy harbour, which leads to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
Opened in 1977, the bridge is named for the writer of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Wiedefeld said all vessel traffic into and out of the port would be suspended until further notice, though the facility was still open to trucks.
President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore "as quickly as I can" and that he intends for the federal government to pick up the entire cost of rebuilding the bridge.
"This is going to take some time," Biden said.
"The people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt."
The FBI was on the scene and said there was no credible information to suggest terrorism.
Dozens of local agencies are involved in the rescue efforts, bringing in specialist equipment required for a large-scale search.
Wallace said divers would be looking to get into the water but said they faced issues including the current, tide coming in and temperatures.
"That adds a bit of a challenge to us also," he said.
"We can certainly dive in these conditions but we have to take a lot of factors into play. The fact that there may be trauma involved, they have been in the water an extended period of time."
There has also been the odour of diesel fuel across the morning but it was not known if there had been an oil spill from the ship.
The collapse is almost sure to create a logistical nightmare for months, if not years, along the east coast, shutting down ship traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major shipping hub. The accident will also snarl cargo and commuter traffic.
"Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast," Maryland state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling said.
Highway signs as far south as Virginia warned drivers of delays associated with the bridge.
"This is a dire emergency," Kevin Cartwright, director of communications for the Baltimore Fire Department, told The Associated Press.
"Our focus right now is trying to rescue and recover these people."
The temperature in the river was about 8 degrees in the early hours of Tuesday, according to a buoy that collects data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
From a vantage point near the entrance to the bridge, jagged remnants of its steel frame were visible protruding from the water, with the on-ramp ending abruptly where the span once began.
The ship is called Dali, according to Cartwright. A vessel by that name was headed from Baltimore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, as its final destination, according to Marine
Traffic and Vessel Finder. The ship was flying under a Singapore flag, WTOP radio station reported, citing Petty Officer Matthew West from the Coast Guard in Baltimore.
Source: Fijian Broadcasting Cooperation