I join the non-engineers in solving engineering problems!

There was a terrible accident at a bridge in Baltimore — it was struck by a container ship and collapsed horrifically. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to the discussion. Minnesota had a terrible bridge collapse back in 2007, but that was a consequence of neglect and failure to maintain critical infrastructure. This event seems to be completely different.

But then I looked at the news and noticed that a lot of idiots are throwing out explanations. Hey, I have no engineering expertise, know nothing about bridge construction, but have ridden on a ship a few times, therefore I’m just as qualified as the Fox News team or Victor Davis Hansen, or some guy who has appeared on Ancient Aliens, therefore I should opine.

You should look at how they’re explaining the crash.

A non-exhaustive list of things that are getting blamed for the bridge collapse on Telegram and X include: President Joe Biden, Hamas, ISIS, P Diddy, Nickelodeon, India, former President Barack Obama, Islam, aliens, Sri Lanka, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, Wokeness, Ukraine, foreign aid, the CIA, Jewish people, Israel, Russia, China, Iran, Covid vaccines, DEI, immigrants, Black people and lockdowns.

The Francis Scott Key truss bridge actually collapsed when the MV Dali cargo ship collided with one of the bridge supports. Six construction workers, who were filling potholes on the bridge at the time, are presumed dead. The ship is owned by Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd, and the 22-person crew were all Indian. The ship was on route to Colombo, Sri Lanka at the time of the accident.

This did not stop people from “asking questions” about the incident, a frequent conspiracist response to major events. And though conspiracy theorists are having a hard time pinpointing exactly what conspiracy caused the collapse, the one thing they do agree on is that this incident is a “black swan event.”
The term “black swan event” has been around for decades, and is used to describe a major global event (typically in the financial markets) that can cause significant damage to a country’s economy. But in recent years, the term has been co-opted by the conspiracy minded to explain an event triggered by the so-called deep state that would signal an imminent revolution, a third world war, or some other apocalyptic catastrophe.

Man, a lot of them blame DEI, which seems to be the go-to excuse on the right wing for everything. I don’t get it, though. This ship was crewed by Indians, and the bridge, the victim in this collision, was crewed by immigrant labor, so we can’t blame the magic word “DEI” for that. Fortunately, I, a non-engineer, am here to explain the problem and how to fix it.

The bridge was clearly under-engineered. It crumpled so easily with a slight bump! Clearly, those pilings (or whatever bridge people call them — you know, the bits sticking up out of the water holding up the road) were flimsy and inadequate, and need to be built back stronger. As it is, they probably wouldn’t hold up if they were slammed by a 6-ton wrecking ball, so it’s back to drawing board, and they need to be built with the goal of standing up to the force of a 100,000 ton wrecking ball traveling at 8 knots. Easy, right? I am also not a physicist, so I will leave it to the smarter people here to calculate the amount of force it needs to resist. It’s something like , where you have to multiply and divide and solve for F, way above my pay grade.

So, yeah, just build bridges that are that strong.

I’m not sure where Wokeness or P Diddy or vaccines fit into the equation. We might need to recruit some social scientists to work on the bridge redesign team, and I’m definitely not smart enough for that stuff.

Or I could stand back and let competent people find solutions, which probably don’t involve impossibly strong structures or firing people with the wrong skin color, but where’s the fun in that?


  1. starskeptic says

    If you push something hard enough, it will fall over — Fudd’s First Law of Opposition.

  2. daved says

    The bridge supports had no “dolphins”, i.e. concrete bollards, around their base, so there was nothing to prevent a ship from running into the supports. Also, this bridge is relatively old. It was built well before the era of ships this large.

  3. says

    True the bridge was under engineered to withstand the impact of a 100,000 ton container ship which didn’t exist when the bridge was built. But there is another partner in this collapse, the ship and its power failure which meant the crew had no control over the ship. First question, why wasn’t the ship being moved by tugs which would eliminate the risk of engine failure. Something which could be managed in the open ocean far more easily than in a busy port with limited manoeuvring room. Was it a cost cutting measure to save the expense of using tugs? Which brings me to the engine failure. Could poor maintenance have contributed. The company which owns this ship has been caught out several times overworking and not paying their crews, including on this ship. Maritime authorities have detained this and other ships owned by the same company for this and other reasons. If they cut costs by not paying their crews do they also cut costs by neglecting maintenance?

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Cross-posted from the Infinite Thread:
    Letters to the Editor: The Baltimore bridge collapse is tragic. This the wrong solution

    To the editor: The tragic collapse in Baltimore will take a long time to fix, but the solution is not to rebuild the bridge.

    Instead, we should use our technology to build a tunnel under the harbor, big enough for the trucks that need to access the harbor. It should be a national project that bypasses the years of bureaucratic delays. Elon Musk, bring on your Boring Company.

    Tony Gitt, Westlake Village

    I suspect Tony Gitt is also not an engineer. That furthermore, he has no idea of the amount of time which would be necessary to prepare for a tunnel project before any actual boring took place. He also seems totally unfamiliar with Elon Musk’s record of briging in projects on time and under budget. I suggest some quick research in that regard on the Tesla Cybertruck and Full Self Driving.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    “Was it a cost-cutting measure to save the expense of using tugs?”
    Also, the cost-cutting by overworking the crew.
    I see a common theme here, that coincides with the ultimate cause of the train that was derailed: cost-cutting.

    This could be avoided by stricter rules. You know, rules like that huge pile of federal rules President 45 bragged about abolishing.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    The bridge was obviously woke.
    I do not know how exactly this caused the accident – just as it is hard to find out exactly how the Jews control the world- but I am happy to let the geniuses at Fox News solve the enigma.

  7. raven says

    Man, a lot of them blame DEI, which seems to be the go-to excuse on the right wing for everything.

    That is just silly.

    It was woke. Woke explains everything the right wingnuits don’t like these days.

    It was also Trans people. Trans people also explain everything the right wingnuts don’t like these days.
    Don’t forget the Drag Queens.

    So that bridge in Baltimore collapsed because of woke, Trans people, Drag Queens.

    In recent times past like 10 years ago, that bridge would have been destroyed by demons. Demons used to be everywhere explaining everything. And UFO aliens. We’ve moved on to more plausible explanations.

    This is all because we are living in the Last Days and the End is near when jesus comes back to kill 8 billion people and destroy the earth.

  8. says

    Take what I say here with the same block of salt that applies to all our comments on this subject here.

    After the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse (near Tampa), which also got struck by a ship, they did put in those “dolphins”, so presumably the engineers think they add to the safety.

    I read that tugs would not have been sufficient to stop the Dali. They are used mostly for slow maneuvering right near the docks.

    Cost-cutting? I suspect that comes closest to the root cause. The ship was having electrical problems at least 48 hours to launching (supposedly due to too many refrigerated boxes hooked up to the ship’s electrical system), but they sent it out anyways. I would bet it was corporate pressure (similar to what’s happened at Boeing) “training” the crew to just get it done. They had a schedule to keep.

  9. johnson catman says

    re Reginald Selkirk @4: Trucks carrying hazardous materials are not allowed to use tunnels in many places, and I believe that applies in Maryland. So a tunnel is a non-solution to the problem to begin with, notwithstanding the logics of actually building a tunnel.

  10. says

    Has anyone considered that Taylor Swift and the Kansas City Chiefs might be responsible?
    The Baltimore Ravens had the temerity to challenge the Chiefs’ right to go to the Super Bowl just a couple of months ago. They came close (17-10) to ruining the Deep State plot for Swift to get network air time to push Biden’s presidential candidacy.
    Other cities are also in danger. Beware, Buffalo and San Francisco–you’re probably next.
    Seriously, I’m no engineer either, but I do watch a lot of shows featuring sinking ships and collapsing bridges. (Also crashing planes, derailing trains and collapsing buildings. I have always been fascinated by failure.) What I know is that 100,000 ton ships don’t stop on a dime, and without power they don’t steer for shit. Dropping anchor at that speed can have its own problems, like the ship swinging about and crashing anyway. Bridges are designed to structurally transfer loads to the pylons and have cables and struts under tension. Take out a pylon or even just a set of cable stays or a strut and the whole thing goes sproing and comes down. Newer bridges mostly avoid having single points of failure, but this bridge was completed, I think, in 1977. Also, in 1977 there weren’t ships of that size–and there wasn’t much room for error when passing under that bridge. Not sure why the tugboats didn’t stay with it long enough to get it past the bridge–that might be a money-saving measure, indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ship was undermanned.
    I suppose we could wait for the investigation to conclude, but where’s the fun in that?

  11. billseymour says

    DEI seems to be the white Christian nationalist lie du jour.

    I remember that, just before the last election, the two big lies were Critical Race Theory (IIRC, a post-graduate curriculum taught mainly in law schools and that has never been taught, and couldn’t be taught, at the primary and secondary levels) and “protecting girls’ sports.”  (One candidate for the state house of representatives in western Missouri was hyperventilating about one trans woman who once got a bronze medal in one collegiate swimming meet.)

    The point is to make the MAGAts afraid, which turns out to be easy.

  12. says

    I did a lot of web reading since the collapse. There are bridges pylons that are likely sufficient to protect the support from a ship of this size. The two I focused on were the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (since I live near both – and my Grandfather was the Army Corps of Engineers supervising engineer – the inspecting authority – when both bridges were built!). Both built LONG before the Francis Scott Key bridge – and both built with hefty “dolphins” more as part of earthquake preparedness than to survive being struck by a ship the size of (and going the speed of) the Dali.

    Two or three structural engineers were of the opinion that the known construction of their “dolphins” should suffice (to protect the bridge piers themselves) being struck by ships of this size/speed. All should be characterized as “informed, educated opinions” as they freely admitted NOT having the exact specifications.

  13. raven says

    I actually do know why the Baltimore bridge collapsed.

    It was because nobody bothered to look it up on the search engine Google.
    I know this because I just looked it up on Google.

    I put the question into Google, “Would tugboats have prevented the Baltimore bridge collapse?”
    Probably yes.


    Could tugboats have prevented the Baltimore bridge collapse? They would have helped, experts say
    ‘With tugboats attached, you have immediate power available to modify the movement of a vessel’

    Natalie Stechyson · CBC News · Posted: Mar 27, 2024 1:18 PM PDT | Last Updated: March 27 edited for length

    Experts say tugboats could have helped make a difference in mitigating the impact. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

    As the focus in the Baltimore bridge collapse shifts from a rescue operation to an investigation of why it happened, some maritime experts have questioned why the ship didn’t have tugboat guides with it right before impact — and if they could have made a difference.

    Early Tuesday morning, two tugboats owned by McAllister Towing helped the container ship Dali out of the dock, according to marine shipping data analyzed by the Baltimore Banner. They then left the cargo ship around 1:09 a.m., the newspaper reported. At 1:25 a.m., the ship began veering right.

    The ship slammed into the pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after losing power around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. This caused a long span of the bridge, a major link in the region’s transport networks, to crumple into the Patapsco River.

    “The obvious answer is yes, they could have helped,” Trevor Heaver, professor emeritus of transport operations and logistics at the University of British Columbia, told CBC News.

    “With tugboats attached, you have immediate power available to modify the movement of a vessel.”

    In Vancouver, any loaded tanker moving under the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge is assisted by tugboats, according to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

    That said, it’s not really possible to say if tugboats could have stopped the accident in Baltimore if they’d still been attached to the vessel, Heaver added, because there were a number of factors at play, including the speed of the container ship, how far the ship was from the bridge when it lost power, and the size and power of the tugboats.

    “They obviously would have helped. How much they would have helped, we have no idea.”

    The role of tugboats
    Tugboats are used to tow and push larger vessels, and one of their primary tasks is to “assist with the berthing and unberthing of ships, particularly in ports with challenging navigational conditions,” according to the Marine Safety Consultants website.

    The Dali probably left the tugboats after departure in order to gain speed, Capt. Alain Arsenault, the executive director with the National Centre of Expertise on Maritime Pilotage, told CBC News Network.

    He said in some parts of the world, ships have what are called “tethering tugs” that go in front of the ship “and can help if something happens.”

    “But we don’t have that many of that in the U.S.”

    A full container ship lost power in Baltimore’s harbour, just moments before it crashed into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge. We ask harbour master Captain Adam Parsons how might an incident with a drifting vessel play out in Halifax.
    The port in Halifax has a number of safety mechanisms in place to avoid a similar tragic situation, harbour master Capt. Adam Parsons told Metro Morning. That includes a requirement that any vessel over a specific length has one or two tugs tethered to it, Parsons said.

    “So that if you have a situation or one of these incidents, the tug vessels can bring the ship to safety.”

    Even with a fully loaded and massive container ship, like the Dali, tugboats could “absolutely” stop it from drifting.

    “The theory is, and the concept is, that the tugs can assist and stop the vessel depending on its location.”

    The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore has some experts questioning whether Canadian infrastructure could withstand such a devastating container ship crash.
    ‘There are few things scarier’
    Federal and state officials have said the crash appeared to be an accident. Capt. Michael Burns Jr. of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy said bringing a ship into or out of ports in restricted waters with limited room to manoeuvre is “one of the most technically challenging and demanding things that we do.”

    There are “few things that are scarier than a loss of power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a ship loses propulsion and steering, “then it’s really at the mercy of the wind and the current.”

    When a ship loses propulsion power, it loses its ability to manoeuvre itself, Jin Wang, a professor of marine technology at Liverpool John Moores University, said on the Science Media Centre website.

    Baltimore bridge collapse was a failure, engineers say — but likely not with the bridge
    “To avoid the shipping drift randomly to lead to possible collisions with other objects, the best way of mitigating possible consequences is to anchor the ship and also to ask emergency response and rescue services (e.g., tugs or similar ships) to assist the ship,” Wang wrote.

    Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy officer, wrote in the Telegraph that given the speed of the Dali, a tug forward would have struggled to have any “lateral effect” on the collision course. But a tugboat at the aft, or rear of the ship, may have made a difference.

    “There is no reason (other than time and money) why [the ship] couldn’t have had a tug attached aft or at least had one close by. This would have given the ship so many more options.”

    This was the first hit from Google, edited for length.

    .1. Tugboats would have helped a lot.
    That is what they are for and what they do.
    ‘With tugboats attached, you have immediate power available to modify the movement of a vessel’
    .2. In similar ports with hazardous entries and exits, tugboats are mandatory.

    So yeah, hindsight is 20:20.
    They saved a few bucks here and there and now they have a bridge to replace.

  14. robro says

    Here’s a thought: Why are they bringing 100kt ships into the Patapsco River, much less the 250km from the Atlantic up Chesapeake Bay to the Patapsco River?

    As far as tunnels versus bridges, they don’t need Musk…of course. There already is a tunnel across the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is 28+ km long and opened in 1964, seven years before Musk was born.

  15. Jean says

    The cause is greed. The ship’s owners didn’t want to pay for proper maintenance and that cause the power failure which resulted in the collision.

    As for the bridge collapse, that issue is not the bridge design but the lack of protection around the pillars as has been mentioned. Lack of adequate public infrastructure spending and planning and the stupidity of trying to save a few bucks. That will cost billions in direct and indirect costs.

  16. Austin Pratt says

    There was a Baltimore harbor pilot on board. Pilots are responsible for guiding large ships in harbor areas. A steering casualty may have been responsible. This is a failure of the rudder mechanism or its hydraulics. Technically speaking, the support structure of a bridge is called a pier and this was an allision as one object was not in motion.

  17. abb3w says

    @2, daved:

    The bridge supports had no “dolphins”, i.e. concrete bollards, around their base, so there was nothing to prevent a ship from running into the supports.

    This may be slightly inaccurate.

    In one of the discussions I read, someone posted the water navigation map, pointing out the “dolphins” that were in place had been marked as navigation hazards and indicating that they were submerged at high tide; and I’ve seen other articles that discussed them. As such, it seems likely that the problem wasn’t that there were “no” dolphins; rather, that to deal with the impact load of modern supersize cargo ships they were
    * too few in number
    * placed too far from the bridge, and
    * were not designed large enough.

  18. doubter says

    I live in a city (Halifax, Nova Scotia) that depends on two suspension bridges to get most of its traffic across the harbour. I think we had a collective freak-out after what happened in Baltimore, to the extent that officials reassured the public: https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1.7156382

  19. robro says

    Raging Bee @ #22 — Because Hyundai Heavy Industries, which built the ship, picked the name. There’s a sister ship named Cezanne after in Paul Cézanne. I hope the Cezanne does come near the Golden Gate Bridge.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says

    A longer main span would require fewer piers, but the feasibility of doing that would require careful study of the geology.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    That list of those-to-blame conspicuously omits “atheists”.

    Our cover-up is working!

  22. Allison says

    robro @ 19

    Why are they bringing 100kt ships into the Patapsco River, much less the 250km from the Atlantic up Chesapeake Bay to the Patapsco River?

    Because that’s the only way to sail a ship from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Baltimore.

    Effectively, you’re asking, why use the Port of Baltimore? That’s a business question, not an engineering one.

  23. Reginald Selkirk says

    This caused a long span of the bridge, a major link in the region’s transport networks, to crumple into the Patapsco River.

    The situation calls out for a capitalistic solution. We should turn to corporate sponsorship to pay the cost of rebuilding the bridge, once we allow them to rename it the PepsiCo River.

  24. robro says

    Allison @ #31 — Actually I’m asking why use the Port of Baltimore for 100k ships? Or perhaps, is there a “safe size” for ships that go to the Port of Baltimore? And, what’s the governance of port facilities and the size and type of shipping they can support?

    Other smaller ships might be safer. There are areas closer to the bay per se yet still near Baltimore with better access for large ships that could be developed…and I understand…with all the environmental wreckage that entails.

    Perhaps a related question is…why are they using 100k ton ships at all? I assume it’s cheaper to operate. I wouldn’t be surprised that the onboard crews are about the same size as smaller ships. And I recall seeing info pieces about the shipping industry pushing up the sizes of ships. In fact, there was a big ship that ran aground in the Suez not long ago. stopping traffic in the canal, which really impacted international trade. I recall seeing questions about the size of ships that are safe in the Suez, but that topic quickly disappeared.

  25. says

    Flying cars (and trucks) would eliminate the need for bridges. ;)

    Fully Self-Driving flying cars and trucks! It’s the way of the future! (the way of the future! the way of the future! the way of the future! the way of the future! the way of the future! the way of the future!) What could possibly go wrong?

  26. Reginald Selkirk says

    Elongated Muskie can build us a tunnel across the Pacific Ocean, then we won’t need ships at all.

  27. Kevin Dugan says

    Ever since reading “The Elements of Structure” by W. Morgan, I’ve looked at static engineering like buildings and bridges in a different way. I’m now cognizant that buildings without steel frames are just piles of rocks waiting for something like an earthquake or flood to knock them down. A steel frame can help somewhat by taking up the tension and shear forces like wind on a skyscraper’s sides. Masonry is only strong in compression, which is why when a shear force, like a 100k container ship hits a pier, the pier has little chance to survive. IMHO, A ship that large hitting that pier would be like kicking over a human high pile of bricks wrapped in chicken wire.
    Dolphins and Tugs could help, but the greedy bastards that didn’t maintain their ship are the real villains of this story. Of course the laws we’ve allowed investor class to build to around their liability for the actions of their companies means the ultimate culprits will get away Scott free. Capitalism is at it’s core a way for the wealthy to absolve themselves of responsibility.

  28. Steve Morrison says

    DEI was definitely what caused this! An albino monk planned it all from behind the scenes!!

    Oh, wait, that’s Opus Dei. Never mind, wrong conspiracy theory…

  29. says

    Build the bridge to withstand the impact of a 100,000 ton ship? Not all that easy. In 1975 the Tasman bridge in Hobart Tasmania was similarly struck by a bulk ore carrier and one span collapsed killing several people and sinking the ship. The bridge was rebuilt but the piers supporting it were never strengthened so the risk remains. Instead whenever a ship has to pass under the bridge traffic is stopped on the bridge approaches until the ship passes through.

  30. whywhywhy says

    Seems like the collapse had the same root cause as the prior bridge in Minn: negligence in regards to maintenance.

  31. whywhywhy says

    Seems like the collapse had the same root cause as the prior bridge in Minn: negligence in regards to maintenance.

  32. Jazzlet says

    robro @33 etc
    Moving ports down estuary has happened in places where there are suitable alternatives, and the freed up space is worth enough, it had started happening in London and Manchester by the beginning of the last century.

  33. Kagehi says

    @3 garydargan

    Problem is, if you look at images of the water way, it wasn’t even “in port”, but in the area leading up to it. So, technically what would be much more “open area”, with low risk of problems. Seen a few things from online, including sort of geek engineer types, that point out that a ship that size, with cargo, weighs enough that almost nothing could stop it, if it lost power, so.. tugs or not… And, to be clear, tugs could lose power too, causing the same issue. I do think that something like a deflection berm, or what ever you call it, on the base would have been a good idea, but its been pointed out that our infrastructure is out of date, both in terms of maintenance, as well as technology, compared to.. almost anyone. However, the last point made, by quite a few people, is that we have been utterly complacent about risk, with respect to supply chains, and while a bridge having something happen too it is bad, and the loss of life is bad, the utter and complete lack of even a normally not operating at capacity port, as an alternative, to which ships could be directed WHEN these things happen is just plain idiotic. It would be like if we had only one airport in each region of the country and goods that where flown in had to be redirected to some place thousands of miles from there intended destination every time the runway got icy some place, or something else happened to derail delivery. Except, even in that kind of mess, we are talking hours, or a few days, to fix get the runway up again, not possibly weeks, so.. yeah, having a hard time thinking of any case where both travel, and goods deliver, could be this screwed up by one event, and with no bloody way to get it to its destination – just freaking literally ships, trying to get to a port, where something blocked the port. Its ridiculous.

  34. Lauren Walker says

    Baltimore already has a harbor tunnel on I895 that’s located further inside the harbor. I think it was built in the1950s well before the Key bridge was constructed. I assume the reason the bridge was built instead of another tunnel is due to the shallower water depth in that portion of the river. It’s also not true that it doesn’t have dolphins. They’re just too small and too far away from the bridge pylons. The ship missed them completely. I don’t know that it would’ve mattered anyway with a ship that size relative to the size of the bridge. I’ve always thought the much larger Chesapeake Bay Bridge isn’t as well protected as it should be either for all the ship traffic that passes under it. Driving on it, you can see the long line of huge ships anchored south of it waiting to pass through to enter Baltimore and it’s crossed my mind whether the pylons would be able to handle an impact if it ever happened.

    As for building a harbor for bigger ships elsewhere in the Chesapeake, I can’t think where you’d put it. Also, Baltimore is part of the I95 corridor that links D.C., Philly, NY, etc. which makes it the most convenient and economical place to transport goods. The next best place would probably be Virginia Harbor in Norfolk which already exists and will likely be used while Baltimore harbor is inaccessible.

    And a funny bit of irony about those blaming DEI, as if that somehow lowers qualification standards: Baltimore actually has a majority black population, so a DEI hire would be a mediocre white guy in this case. Also revolting, but unsurprising, is how these same people rushed to offer “thoughts and prayers” for the construction workers and their families until they found out they were immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Now their deaths don’t count, apparently.


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