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Port workers in Baltimore face uncertain future

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Salvage and recovery efforts continue in Baltimore as crews work to clear debris from the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. Maryland officials say that will likely take months. The bridge collapsed very early on Tuesday morning after a massive cargo ship struck it, causing the structure to crumble into the Patapsco River. Authorities said the bodies of two victims were recovered yesterday. Four other construction workers who went missing when the bridge went down are now presumed dead. Reporter Emily Hofstaedter of member station WYPR is here with the latest. Hey, Emily.

EMILY HOFSTAEDTER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So as the work to clear the wreckage of this bridge gets underway, what has happened to the search for people who are still missing right now?

HOFSTAEDTER: Unfortunately, right now the search is temporarily suspended. Sonar from the fire departments and the state police shows that there is - that there are additional vehicles in the water. But due to water conditions and wreckage, concrete - they're encased in there. The conditions are unsafe for further diving. It could be weeks or months even before we recover those bodies, which is clearly very difficult for the families. Two workers were recovered yesterday - their bodies. Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes and Dorian Castillo Cabrera were found in a red pickup truck submerged in about 25 feet of water under what was the mid span of the bridge. Fuentes was 35 and a Baltimore resident originally from Mexico. Cabrera was 26 and lived in Dundalk, Md. He was originally from Guatemala.

CHANG: Well, we keep hearing that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating this accident. What have they found so far?

HOFSTAEDTER: Very, very preliminary. So we're getting a little bit of conflicting information. There was some hazardous material on the cargo ship that could have been containers of hazmats, including corrosives, flammables, lithium ion batteries. Some of those may have breached. There's a bit of conflicting information from the Coast Guard and the NTSB. What is important right now is that there isn't any indication that there is an immediate environmental disaster looming from those. Environmental authorities are aware no oil spill protocol has been activated. So there's no indication that anything is leaking from there. Again, with that cargo - to retrieve it, they're dealing with the same dangerous conditions.

Now, structurally, we know more. More is known about the bridge. It was opened in 1977. It is a fracture critical bridge, which means that there is no redundancy. Those kinds of bridges are built that if one piece goes down, the whole thing goes down. And that is what we saw. Less than 3% of bridges in the country are considered fracture critical. They are inspected more often than others. And NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy confirmed that the Francis Scott Key Bridge got a satisfactory on its most recent federal inspection.

CHANG: Well, I understand that you've been talking to some people who had also worked on the bridge in the past. What are you hearing from them?

HOFSTAEDTER: Yeah. They're all devastated. They're in shock. Words like bewildered are used a lot. Some of those people that I've spoken with did know the men. They describe them as entirely dedicated to their families. Many of them were fathers. They talked about it on their breaks, sharing banter and teaching each other English and Spanish. You know, but for the people who do this work, there's now an anxiety, you know, that the bridge could collapse. Here is a George - sorry - George Xanthakos, who was due to perform routine welding repairs just three hours after the bridge collapsed.

GEORGE XANTHAKOS: Now looking back on it, you actually think, was it safe, or wasn't it safe? I mean, we don't know anything about the designs and architectural stuff. We just follow whatever the blueprints say.

HOFSTAEDTER: And I want to stress that the bridge was passing its inspections. But we know that this didn't have redundancy because of the kind of bridge it was.

CHANG: That is Emily Hofstaedter of member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thank you so much, Emily.

HOFSTAEDTER: Thank you. 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.

Emily Hofstaedter
[Copyright 2024 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore]
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