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‘Black box’ data recorder recovered from ship that struck Baltimore bridge

National Transportation Safety Board recovers ship black box after deadly bridge crash

(CNN) — The collapse of a major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday morning due to a massive cargo ship collision has throttled one of the country’s biggest ports for the foreseeable future as crews search for six workers who are now presumed dead.

Here’s the latest:

  • The investigation: A team from the National Transportation Safety Board boarded the ship late Tuesday night to gather evidence for their investigation, agency Chair Jennifer Homendy told CNN on Wednesday. Officials obtained the ship’s data recorder, or black box, which Homendy said would help investigators develop a timeline of events leading up to the crash. The agency will also interview members of the ship’s crew, she said. Sources familiar with the probe say it will look into whether contaminated fuel played a role in what happened, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • No threat to the public: Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, the deputy commandant for operations, said there is no hazmat threat to the public. Of the ship’s 4,700 cargo containers, only two are missing overboard and neither contains hazardous materials, he said. The vessel has over 1.5 million gallons of oil on board but remains stable.
  • Ship lost power 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. While the lights on the boat could be seen turning back on – likely due to an emergency generator – the ship’s engines never recovered, he said.

The collapse of the bridge and the resulting closure of the port will have major repercussions on the city’s economy as well as on the country’s supply chain, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday. The Baltimore port is the largest in the United States for autos and light trucks, handling a record 850,000 vehicles last year.

Buttigieg said there are four main focus points ahead: reopening the port, dealing with supply chain issues until its reopening, rebuilding the bridge and dealing with road transportation issues until the bridge is rebuilt.

“Rebuilding will not be quick, or easy, or cheap, but we will get it done,” he said.

Officials have yet to provide a timeline for reopening. President Joe Biden said he intends for the federal government to cover the full repair costs and called on Congress to support rebuilding efforts.

Victims were constructions workers on night shift

The Francis Scott Key Bridge toppled shortly before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday when 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.

Among the victims was Miguel Luna, a father of three, and Maynor Suazo, a father and entrepreneur.

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 of the missing are also Mexican, though he did not say how many.

Divers resumed search and recovery efforts for the victims Wednesday, which were paused overnight due to dangerous conditions, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore told CNN. The governor praised the divers who were working in “pitch dark conditions, in frigid temperatures, in high tides and high winds, with mangled metal all around them.”

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.”

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.

Port’s closure to have major impact

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.

Gautier, the Coast Guard vice admiral, said the vessel is stable but has over 1.5 million gallons of fuel oil and lube oil on board. The ship has 4,700 cargo containers and 56 of those contain hazardous materials. Two containers with non-hazardous materials are missing overboard, and 13 containers on the bow of the ship were damaged, he said.

As part of the cleanup efforts, workers will first have to clear the portion of the bridge sitting on top of the ship, Gautier said. There is no indication of damage or flooding under the vessel, he said.

In the meantime, the port’s economic impact stretches well beyond Maryland. It indirectly employs over 140,000 people and handles more foreign cargo than any other port in the country, he said.

“This isn’t just about the impact this is going to have on Maryland’s economy. This is the impact that’s going to have on our country’s economy,” Moore said.

“This is the farmer in Kentucky. It’s the auto dealer in Michigan. So we’ve got to prioritize being able to get that bridge rebuilt, to give them support and get this channel reopened.”

Buttigieg said he does not have an estimated reopening time for the Patapsco River channel, but is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities to get it open as soon as possible.

“Not only do we need to get those ships in, there are some ships that are already in there that can’t get out. So, it’s very important to get that channel open,” he said.

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 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.

Dropping the anchor was in line with standard emergency procedures, but the speed and mass of a ship determine whether or not the anchor will hold, a former pilot for the Association of Maryland Pilots told CNN.

“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,” 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.

Questions over previous incidents involving ship and management company

As officials worked to investigate the collapse Tuesday, questions emerged over previous issues with the ship and its management company.

The ship was briefly held at the Port of San Antonio in Chile on June 27, 2023, when an inspector found that the pressure gauges for the vessel’s heating system were “unreadable,” a spokesperson for the Chilean Navy said.

Ships managed by the Synergy Marine Group have been involved in at least three deadly incidents since 2018 in Australia, Singapore and the Philippines, according to officials in those countries.

In 2018, a member onboard of a vessel managed by Synergy in Australia was killed in an accident involving the ship’s personnel elevator, according to a report from the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau.

In 2019, an officer on a Synergy-registered vessel in Singapore was reported missing after “likely (falling) overboard while performing inspection or cleaning jobs,” according to a report by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau of Singapore’s Ministry of Transport.

In 2023, at least one sailor was killed when a Synergy Marine-managed tanker collided with a dredging ship in the Philippines, causing it to capsize, according to an incident report from the Philippines Coast Guard.

Synergy Marine Group is focused on the Baltimore incident, spokesperson Charlie Ridgeway told CNN in a phone call Wednesday. “It would be inappropriate to discuss any previous incidents at this time.”

CNN’s Majlie de Puy Kamp, 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, Maria Santana, Amy Simonson, Sabrina Souza, Aditi Sangal, Bex Wright and Michael Williams contributed to this report.