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Dali Black Box reveals how little time was available to get traffic off the bridge

The currently available timeline of events that immediately preceded container ship Dali hitting the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, causing it to collapse en masse into the water, shows that it was only the decision of the senior pilot, before he did anything else, to use his cellphone to call ashore that there was a danger that the ship might hit the bridge, that gave the landside responders time to alert the checkpoints at both ends to stop vehicles on and to hurry the vehicles already on the bridge to get off, that saved many lives. Tragically the workers on the bridge could not be notified in time, and six of them died, but the list of fatalities could have been far, far worse.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week released an initial timeline of events , based on information garnered from an initial tranche of information from the voyage data recorder (VDR).

At about 00:39 local time (GMT minus 5 hours) on Tuesday morning March 26th, container ship Dali departed Baltimore’s Seagirt Terminal with 21 Indian crewmembers and two local pilots on board. On the 9,500 teu vessel there were 56 declared hazmat containers. The pilots released the docking tugs a short while after, and the vessel entered the ship channel.

At 01:24 the Dali was making eight knots in the channel and steering 141 degrees.

A minute later multiple alarms went off and the VDR ceased recording the ship’s electronic system data. Using backup power, the VDR kept recording bridge audio, and it captured the pilot’s verbal rudder commands.

At 01:26 (elsewhere the gap has been described as just 45 seconds) the VDR was able to resume recording the ship’s electronic data.

At 01:26:39 the pilot made a general VHF call for tug assistance. This was the first distress call from the vessel.

At about this time, a dispatcher at the pilot’s association contacted the duty officer at the MDTA, the state authority that operates the Francis Scott Key Bridge. This gave the MDTA enough early warning to begin shutting down the bridge to traffic, an action that officials have credited with saving many lives.

At 01:27:04, two minutes before contact with the bridge pier, the pilot gave the order to drop Dali’s port anchor. He also gave additional steering commands.

At 01:27:25 the pilot made a general radio call over VHF to warn that the Dali had lost all power and was approaching the Key Bridge. By this time, MDTA’s duty officer had dispatched units to shut down all lanes of traffic.

At 01:29:00 the ship was still making seven knots when the VDR began recording the audible sounds of the allision. That noise continued until 01:29:33. The pilot made a VHF call to report the bridge’s collapse a few moments later.