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Uncertainty looms in the wake of Key bridge collapse

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're learning more about the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. Authorities have confirmed that 2 bodies have been recovered today, and four other people are presumed dead after a cargo ship struck the bridge early Tuesday morning. That crash sent the structure and anyone on it plunging into the frigid Patapsco River. Police audio heard on the website Broadcastify captures the moments before the collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I need one of you guys on the south side, one of you guys on the north side. Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge. There's a ship approaching that has just lost their steering. So until they get that under control, we got to stop all traffic.

CHANG: Authorities say a mayday call from the ship alerted police that it had lost power as it approached the bridge. You hear one of the officers mentioning the construction crew on the bridge fixing potholes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a crew out there. You might want to notify whoever the foreman is - see if we can get them off the bridge temporarily.

CHANG: But there was no time to follow up. Just a few seconds later...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: C-13 dispatch. The whole bridge just fell down. The whole bridge just collapsed.

CHANG: Federal investigators are trying to understand more as the region braces for a long and costly rebuilding process. NPR's Joel Rose has been following all of this and joins us now. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. Let's start with the search for those workers who were on the bridge. What is the latest there?

ROSE: Authorities in Maryland say they recovered two bodies from the river today. They believe eight people were on the bridge when it collapsed. Authorities say the six people who died were all construction workers. The two men recovered today both lived in Maryland - one originally from Mexico, the other from Guatemala. The advocacy group CASA says it has identified two of the other missing men, who were immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras. Both had lived in the U.S. for over a decade. Here's CASA director Gustavo Torres talking to reporters today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVO TORRES: These essential workers are very, very important for our families, for our economy, for our communities. And if we don't protect them, we face this kind of crisis again and again and again.

ROSE: Authorities say all six of the deceased hailed originally from Mexico or Central America.

CHANG: Just tragic. All right. Let's talk about the rebuilding process. Now, do we have a sense of the timeline?

ROSE: Not yet. A vast majority of the Port of Baltimore is blocked. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the Biden administration is working to reopen that shipping channel as quickly as possible. Buttigieg was asked today at a White House press briefing how quickly that could happen. He would not even give a ballpark answer. The challenge is that the tangled wreckage of the bridge is still in the river, and some of it is actually on top of the cargo ship, pinning the ship to the bottom of the river. Here's Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER GAUTIER: The real critical thing here is that, as you know, a portion of the bridge remains on the bow of that ship. And we will be coordinating very closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and their contractors to first effect the removal of that debris before the vessel can then be removed.

ROSE: And they have to do all of that before they can reopen the shipping channel. Secretary Buttigieg says cargo ships can be redirected to other ports, but that does not help the workers at the port in Baltimore - 8,000 direct jobs, Buttigieg said today - about $2 million in wages every day.

CHANG: Well, what's going on with the federal investigation? Like, where do things stand currently?

ROSE: The National Transportation Safety Board says it has recovered the voyage data recorder from the ship, which is basically the black box, like, on an airplane. There's a lot investigators can learn from that about the movement of the ship, the actions of the crew, how systems on board were working or not working, and they say that will help establish the timeline of what happened. Investigators will also look at safety records, the fuel the ship took on in port - was it contaminated? - and at the bridge itself - its structure and construction - and also the amount of collision protection around the piers.

CHANG: Yeah. Can we just stay on that for a minute? - because there have been a lot of questions about the bridge and whether it had enough protection. What can you tell us about that so far?

ROSE: Yeah, the Key Bridge was completed in 1977, before some of the major accidents that have changed the way that bridges are designed. Now, you would likely see more extensive protection around its supporting piers. But that said, experts are not certain that any of that would have saved the Key Bridge. The ship that struck the bridge is nearly 1,000 feet long and much, much heavier than the ships in the 1970s.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you so much, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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