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Did tugboats possibly could have prevented the bridge collapse in Baltimore?

The recent accident involving the cargo ship Dali, which collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the Port of Baltimore, has sparked discussions about the necessity of requiring tugboat escorts in the nation’s ports to guide larger ships and

By JOSHUA GOODMAN and RICHARD LARDNER (Associated Press)

When the 95,000-ton cargo ship Dali lost power and was moving uncontrollably toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the harbor pilot in charge of the ship had only a few minutes to try to avoid a disaster. He announced that the ship was in distress, dropped anchor, and importantly, asked nearby tugboats for help.

Two tugboats with 5,000-horsepower, which had helped guide the ship out of its dock at the Port of Baltimore just minutes before and then left, quickly turned around and rushed toward the Dali. However, it was too late. The massive ship loaded with cargo crashed into the bridge in the early hours of Tuesday, causing the bridge to collapse and resulting in the deaths of six construction workers.

It's questionable whether those tugboats could have prevented the disaster since the Dali was already out of control. However, experts in maritime, interviewed by The Associated Press, say that the tugboats could have made a difference if they had stayed with the ship for a longer time, escorting it during its 18-minute journey through the port's deep-water channel. This would have allowed them to notice if the ship was drifting off course and potentially push or pull it back into position.

Extended tugboat escorts are not mandatory or usual in Baltimore or many other ports in the U.S., mainly because of the additional costs for shippers. Nonetheless, due to the increased size of cargo ships and the threat they pose to bridges and other important infrastructure, some people are questioning whether they should be obligatory.

Joseph Ahlstrom, a member of the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of the State of New York, which regulates the state's harbor pilots, said, “I'm a big fan of tug escorts. If used early enough and effectively, yes, a tug escort could prevent a collision with the bridge or with another ship, or running aground.”

Ahlstrom also teaches at the State University of New York’s Maritime College and added, “Going to sea is dangerous. But if you're going to go to sea, if you're going to put yourself at risk, do whatever it takes to minimize risk.”

According to maritime experts interviewed by the AP, the Baltimore disaster shows that each port sets its own rules for tugboats, resulting in a varied approach across the country, and that the competition among ports for business from budget-minded shipping companies has led to a focus on extended tugboat escorts which can increase the cost of every transit by tens of thousands of dollars.

The port of Baltimore, managed by the state of Maryland, typically uses tugboats to assist large ships in leaving their docks and doesn't require extended tugboat escorts through the port's channel and wider Chesapeake Bay unless they are ordered by local harbor pilots or the U.S. Coast Guard due to safety concerns related to weather, traffic, cargo, or mechanical issues. Shippers can also request tugboats.

In the case of the Dali, two state harbor pilots boarded the Singaporean-flagged ship to take control of navigation through the port as the vessel began its journey to Sri Lanka. Two tugboats, the Eric McAllister and the Bridget McAllister, guided the enormous ship out of the narrow areas of the dock and then left when the ship was safely in the channel.

But very quickly, according to satellite data that monitors ship traffic, the 984-foot (300-meter) Dali started to move out of its designated path and then turned more sharply before hitting one of the main supports of the bridge, which is an important route for Baltimore truckers and commuters.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, stated that a review of the ship’s voyage data recorder revealed that the pilot called for help from nearby tugs at 1:26 a.m., about four minutes before the impact.

David Heindel, president of the Seafarers International Union, which represents U.S. merchant mariners, expressed disbelief that tugs were not required for the vessel as it approached the bridge.

Heindel mentioned that in some ports, tugs are necessary, particularly for tankers. He noted that tugs often have to accompany ships in and out of narrow ports and suggested that this might eventually become a requirement at the Port of Baltimore.

The Maryland Port Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said that the service does not manage tug operations in the port and that the Dali’s departure is standard for these types of cargo ships.

The Dali is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and managed by the Singapore-based Synergy Marine Group. Synergy spokesman Darrell Wilson stated that the company’s ships are guided by pilots, and he was not aware of how tugs are coordinated.

The Eric McAllister and Bridget McAllister are powerful machines. Called tractor tugs, they do not just push ships. The Eric McAllister, the larger of the two, is 98 feet (30 meters) long and equipped with a sturdy steel cable and winch that, when connected to even a large cargo ship, can potentially pull it away from danger.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound prompted Congress and a few states to mandate tug escorts for oil tankers. However, these requirements were primarily aimed at protecting wildlife from spills, not safeguarding important infrastructure like bridges.

Jennifer Carpenter, president of the American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing tugboat and barge companies, anticipates that regulators will closely examine whether more stringent tugboat escort requirements are necessary in light of the Dali tragedy.

She acknowledged that tugboats are just one aspect of a complex safety system that also includes bridge fenders and emergency response systems.

She added that the supply of tugboats is limited and increasing their use carries risks, such as pollution and higher sea traffic.

“We certainly do not want to have two tugs escorting every vessel,” Carpenter said. “That would have major implications for the efficiency and safety of our waterways, which are already quite crowded.”

Some ports have attempted to strengthen vessel escort requirements, but they often encounter opposition from shippers who are under pressure to move goods as affordably as possible.

In 2004, California’s Legislature passed a bill requiring tug escorts for chemical tanker ships in San Francisco Bay, but it was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger due to protests from the shipping industry regarding cost concerns.

Sal Mercogliano, a well-known shipping blogger, mentioned that many companies are hesitant to pay the high initial cost for tugboats. He predicted that if Baltimore enforces this requirement, ships will head to cheaper ports like Norfolk, Philadelphia, or New York.

According to a recent rate sheet, McAllister Towing, the company responsible for guiding the Dali, charges $15,000 or more for each tugboat to guide a large cargo vessel out of its berth, and additional fees apply for longer escorts.

While this may not be a significant expense for a large shipping company, the overall costs can accumulate over time.

John Konrad, a licensed captain, mentioned the underlying tension between shipping companies and pilots regarding the number and duration of tugboat usage for seagoing vessels.

John Konrad, the founder and CEO of gCaptain, a website for maritime professionals, explained that pilots ideally want additional tugboats present until the ship reaches the ocean, but shipping companies are unwilling to cover the cost, creating a constant struggle.

John Konrad also noted the resistance from shipping companies to pay for extra tugboats, leading to an ongoing conflict with the pilots.

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Associated Press reporter Josh Funk contributed to this article.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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