Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse to Trigger Supply Chain Disruptions for Months

ON 03/28/2024 AT 04 : 29 AM

The cargo ship which crashed into the Key Bridge and killed at least six also caused the indefinite shut down of the U.S.'s 9th busiest shipping port.
Francis Scott Key Bridge, Port of Baltimore, Maryland.
The Francis Scott Key Bridge spanning the Patapsco River, just outside of the Port of Baltimore, is shown here the morning after a cargo ship rammed it and caused it to completely collapse, on March 26, 2024. Photo taken by a drone operated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Public Domain

Just after midnight on March 26, the cargo ship MV Dalí, a Singapore-flagged cargo vessel owned by Grace Ocean Pte Ltd., operated by the Synergy Marine Group, and chartered by Danish shipping giant Maersk, had just left the Port of Baltimore in Maryland. It was carrying an estimated close to 3,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of shipping containers along its 984-foot (almost 300 meters) long deck, with a variety of goods on board at the time.

When empty this ship weighs close to 95,000 tons. Each of the 3,000 TEU containers is capable of adding 24 tons maximum gross weight to the vessel, so though exact numbers are not known, this could mean the cargo could have amounted to another 72,000 tons to the load.

The MV Dalí was also on its way for what should have been a routine transit out of the port and out to sea. It was on its way to deliver its onboard shipments eventually to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Based on investigations and data released so far, shortly after 1 AM EDT the ship’s crew, which originated from India and Sri Lanka, realized one of its propulsion systems was malfunctioning and they no longer had full control over their vessel. When they realized the ship would likely run into the Francis Scott Key Bridge ahead of them, they made a “Mayday” call to emergency responders nearby, which moved quickly to shut off access to vehicles entering the bridge and likely saved lives.

The MV Dalí hit a primary support pylon under the bridge at 1:28 AM EDT at a speed of approximately 8 knots (over 9 miles an hour), a rate which on the water – and especially nearby a port area – is considered “very rapid”. With a total carriage possibly as high as 162,000 tons total, that represented both a lot of inertia and unstoppable destructive force as it approached the bridge. The ship fractured a key support on the 1.6-mile-long steel truss cantilever arch and plate girder architecture of the bridge, causing the entire structure to twist, crack, bend, fracture, and ultimately plunge below in just moments into the Patapsco River.

Crash site where the MV Dalí cargo ship struck a main support pylon on the Francis Scott Key Bridge.
Map showing the location where the MV Dalí struck a main support pylon on the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024.. Wikimedia Maps

According to spokespersons for the state of Maryland, the Port of Baltimore, and the National Transportation Safety Board, the cargo ship was travelling with at least one harbormaster pilot on board at the time of the crash. Those are individuals provided by and based at the Port, have detailed knowledge of the channels they are passing through, and are experienced in the handling of craft like this.

 The bodies of two construction workers in a pickup truck which was on the bridge at the time of the accident were found dead after divers began searching the wreckage for possible survivors. Four other workers who had been present on the bridge at the time are still missing and presumed dead.

Two other workers who survived after falling from the bridge while it was falling apart around them were rescued and sent to the nearby Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore to be cared for. One of those two has already been released.

It is also believed other vehicles, along with their drivers and passengers, may be found in the waters of the Patapsco. Normal searches for them have been abandoned for now, though sonar scans show at least one vehicle is trapped and dangling within the metal shards of the bridge underwater. It will not be possible to extract that and any others still to be located until investigations of what precisely happened in the accident is determined, and the wreckage can be removed.

The “black box” from the cargo ship has already been retrieved by authorities to aid in the investigation. The owners, operator, and crew of the MV Dalí are cooperating fully in that.

Members of the Maryland state legislature passed a special authorization bill shortly after the accident, to pay wages for the over 15,000 workers whose work will be suspended at the Port of Baltimore while it remains shut down to container ship traffic.

In a statement posted on the social media platform X yesterday by State Senate President Bill Ferguson emphasized the importance of those funds “to put food on the table” for those directly affected, while at the same time raising concerns about bigger impacts ahead as the Port of Baltimore remains mostly out of operation.

“The human cost of lives lost yesterday is overwhelming and tragic. The economic and stability loss to the thousands impacted in the days ahead cannot be understated,” he wrote.

In a press conference held yesterday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the federal government will be paying for all costs necessary to repair the Francis Scott Key bridge. She told reporters Joe Biden personally guaranteed he will “move heaven and earth to aid in the emergency response and help rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.”

In a separate statement, dementia-ridden Biden called the bridge “one of the most important elements” buttressing the economy of the northeastern United States.

The public focus now surrounding the disaster is on determining the root cause of the accident, pulling out any cars or trucks trapped within the bridge fragments under water and by the edges of the river, and clearing out the materials blocking the Patapsco River passage for cargo ships awaiting departure from the port where they are currently stuck. New arrivals to the port may take slightly longer to coordinate.

The port is still open to truck processing traffic, where vessels already in port can continue to be offloaded, and loading of ships from the port may continue for those carriers willing to wait for them to leave until the river is clear. Logistics facilities at the port are also still fully operational.

With the Francis Scott Key Bridge now gone, the average traffic of 31,500 vehicles per day is being rerouted, creating headaches and transit delays for this important part of the Interstate 695 (I-695) Baltimore Beltway system. The Maryland Transportation Authority is recommending rerouting for those who normally used the bridge are being via I-895, also known as the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway, and I-95. Both roadways can handle substantial additional traffic but there will be delays to all because of longer routes traveled and more extreme traffic jams than usual.

The bigger challenge is what to do about the Port of Baltimore itself during the shutdown period, which could last many months until the wreckage is cleared, and which will throttle at least some river traffic afterwards for some time as the bridge is being rebuilt.

In 2021, the last year for which comparative data is fully available, the Port’s five public and twelve private terminals facilitated the movement of over 37 million tons of cargo in the U.S., making it the 17th largest port in the country for that year. Just two years later, investments in logistics management after the pandemic era passed, along with strategic decision to make more effective use of the Port, pushed Baltimore to become the 9th busiest port in the nation.

 It was the largest U.S. exporter of coal and handled some 25% of American coal exports, making it a massive contributor to global warming and climate change.

The port exported a substantial amount of weapons. In FY2023 U.S. military exports rose to a record $238 billion, up nearly 16 percent from $206 billion in FY2022. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. continues to be the world's largest arms exporter and is responsible for 41.7 percent of international arms sales between 2019 and 2023, up from 38.6 percent between 2017 and 2021. 

Baltimore is also the single biggest automobile shipping port in the nation, handling a net of 750,000 vehicles either shipped out or brought in in 2022. Over 500,000 of that count comes from imports from European suppliers such as Mercedes-Benz and Japanese ones including Mazda.

In 2023, the Port accounted for a grand total of $55 billion worth of imports. Tops on the list of the various categories of imports received in terms of dollar volume were vehicles and auto parts, which contributed 49% of that amount, worth an estimated $27 billion. Number two on the import list was made up of machinery of various kinds, with farm and construction equipment making up the most of that category’s net $9 billion. Chemicals and aluminum accounted for $2 billion each of the imports. Of the remaining major categories of goods received at the terminal, electronics and specialized electronic machinery; furniture, bedding and lights; iron and steel; nickel; paper and paperboard; and wood all contributed about $1 billion in total imports. A final “catch-all” category of other commodities added another $18 billion of miscellaneous items to the list.

Last year the Port also processed $22 billion in exports for the U.S. Vehicles and parts were once again the number one component of this trade category for outgoing shipments, with $8 billion in total value. In second place were coal, oil, and natural gas exports. Machinery in general was next with $2 billion worth of shipments, followed by three categories with approximately $1 billion each of items:  aircraft, spacecraft, and related parts; chemicals; and electronics and specialized electronic machinery. Seeds, grains, fruits, and plants amounted to $251 million in exports, just slightly ahead of nickel’s $227 million and aluminum’s $182 million.

On an annualized basis assuming shipments were moving out at an even pace, that would mean approximately $13.75 billion in imports and $1.83 billion in exports that are normally processed by the Port of Baltimore every month will at least need to be handled by some other means. It would cost billions of dollars, create possibly multi-month delays in delivery of some commodities, and in many cases raise the cost of what eventually makes it through the new makeshift supply chain channel and to its final delivery point.

This is why, along with sending out condolences to the families affected by the horrific tragedy of the accident, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg yesterday issued a warning that the resultant suspension of Port export and import shipments from Baltimore will have a “major and protracted impact to supply chains”.

“There is no substitute for the Port of Baltimore being up and running,” Buttigieg said as part of a televised interview yesterday.

For the automobile industry, both imports and exports of goods are expected to be immediately impacted to a high degree by the Port’s shutdown. According to projections which were already in place prior to the cargo ship hitting the bridge, Mazda imports into Baltimore were expected to hit $118 million just this month alone. Mercedes-Benz was the strong number two importer, with $73 million. Coming in next after that were Subaru of America, which had $70 million of shipments to be processed, followed by Mitsubishi North America with $67 million, Volkswagen with $56 million, Fiat Chrysler with $32 million, Jaguar Land Rover at $31 million, and General Motors with $20 million.

Further, while other commodities can be rerouted around the Port of Baltimore until it is available again, coal, one of the biggest export categories for the Port, is not easily transferred to another location because of the specialized facilities required to handle this potentially toxic and flammable bulk item. The Port was the second largest exporter of coal for the U.S. last year, which means the Port being shut down will have significant impacts on trade to foreign countries which are expecting it, with resulting ramifications for them in the generation of electrical power, and for the possible need for those countries to find alternate sources, of which there are plenty. 

Most of the coal coming from Baltimore, much of which is collected from the eastern United States, is shipped out to India. That nation is understood already to be assessing the impact of the Port shutdown on its needs, and what it may need to do to address it.

All other commodity types that will eventually be shuffled around from the Port of Baltimore to elsewhere will have stories like these, though with differing impacts. In some cases, customers will simply buy from others rather than wait for the goods. Such may happen in the case of at least some of the coal which would have been heading for India, for example. Since the coal it is receiving is used in coal-fired power plants and is stockpiled only to a limited degree, the country cannot just wait for the shipment to arrive. It also may not be willing to pay the higher price for receiving it if the coal is shipped first from the docks in Baltimore, then transferred to trucks to another port on the east coast, and then loaded into another container ship probably further north of Baltimore before heading back out for India.

Beyond this, the other problem to be addressed is the plan to rebuild the replacement for the Francis Scott Key bridge which just came down. The original one took nine years to plan and design, plus another five years to build. Because today’s Baltimore economy grew up with this as a key part of its support infrastructure, after it was originally opened for service in 1977, there will need to be a faster way to replace it than it took to create it in the first place or far more economic damage will result.

At this point the exact cause of the ship's propulsion failure has not been determined and conspiracy theories are rampant. With the U.S. waging war against Russia through Ukraine and genocide against Palestinians through Israel, it is not hard to imagine that some would want to reduce America's exports of death and destruction. If additional key ports were crippled it could indeed have an impact on America's ability to support wars. But, for now, there is no reason to believe that anything but random equipment failure caused the accident.