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Infrastructure Protection of Key Bridge’s Foundation Piers Could Have Reduced Catastrophe

March 28, 2024 (EIRNS)—The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge March 26 has highlighted what engineers say is an urgent responsibility to protect critical foundations, like the piers holding up bridges over shipping channels.

The crucial reasons that the cargo ship Dali, owned by the Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private, lost power just as it approached the bridge at 1:26 a.m., have not been explained. The power loss caused the ship to slam into the piers, collapsing the bridge, and taking the lives of 6 construction workers on the bridge. Within the past 24 hours, the ship’s black box has been turned over to federal authorities.

Three engineering experts made clear that, even with the Dali’s power loss, infrastructure could have been built before the accident that would have reduced or prevented the destruction of the bridge. “The construction code has got to do better,” Erin Bell, chair of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on bridge engineering, told Reuters on March, as quoted in an article, “Collapse Highlights Need To Protect.” Bell noted: “Our job as engineers and our duty to society is that we learn from these failures.”

Federal authorities classify bridges such as Baltimore’s as “fracture critical,” meaning that if one portion of the bridge collapses, because of its stress distribution, it’s likely to take down the rest of the structure. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are more than 16,800 such spans in the U.S.—including such famed structures as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Bell stressed that the Key Bridge was opened in 1977: Three years before, in May 1980, a vessel collided with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida; 35 people died during during the stormy morning rush hour, when a span fell into the river. That accident prompted bridge designers to implement better protections for foundation piers. Some of these decisive infrastructure measures include building “fenders” that push wayward ships away from the piers; groups of pilings called “dolphins” that act as safety rings around pier foundations; or even just mounds of rock and earth.

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