Remains of 2 people recovered after Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

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A Coast Guard cutter passes a cargo ship that is stuck under the part of the structure of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship his the bridge Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)(Courtesy AP/Steve Helber)

Searchers recovered the remains of two people from the Patapsco River after a massive container ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday morning.

The discovery came amid a daylong search for at least six people — all part of a construction crew that was repairing potholes on the Maryland bridge — who plunged into the murky waters after the ship collided with one of the structure’s pillars, sending the bridge tumbling down in a matter of seconds.

Col. Roland Butler, with Maryland State Police, said that a team of divers made the “tragic finding” before 10 a.m.: They found a red pickup truck submerged in about 25 feet of water with two bodies trapped inside.

The victims have been identified as Alejandro Fernandez Fuentes, 35, of Baltimore, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, of Dundalk. Fuentes was originally from Mexico, while Cabrera was from Guatemala.

Butler said it took a while for divers to secure the pickup truck, and it was very “slow-traveling” to tow it to the shoreline.

“At some point, they realized that the water’s depth would not support towing it all the way in,” Butler said. “It was at that point, the deceased were removed from the vehicle and bought to the shore.”

‘We have exhausted all search efforts’

Butler said the operation is moving from recovery mode to a “salvage operation.”

“Because of the superstructure surrounding what we believe are the vehicles and the amount of concrete and debris, divers are no longer able to safely navigate or operate around that. We have exhausted all search efforts.”

He also said that based on sonar scan, it’s believed that the vehicles are encased in the wreckage of the bridge and concrete.

However, Butler added that once the wreckage is removed, divers would go back and “bring those people closure.”

The countries of origins of those presumed dead are Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Butler confirmed Wednesday afternoon during a news conference. The FBI is handling notifying the families of the victims, Butler said.

Searching in the wreckage

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said that search and rescue efforts started less than an hour after the bridge collapsed around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday.

“We had divers in the water at 2:25 a.m. to begin search and rescue,” Moore said. On Wednesday morning, “we had divers in the water starting at 6 a.m. for search and recovery.”

The U.S. Coast Guard had suspended its search and recovery operation for the workers at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, saying that due to the amount of time that had elapsed since the initial collapse and the cold water temperatures, they did not expect to find any of the workers alive.

Moore said Wednesday morning there’s still a sense of urgency in the recovery mission, and by Wednesday afternoon when the two bodies were recovered, he said that the efforts were not a conclusion but a continuation.

The governor ordered that Maryland flags be flown at half-staff until further notice to honor the victims.

“I can’t stress enough the heroism of these folks,” Moore said earlier Wednesday of the rescuers. “They are in frigid conditions, they are down there in darkness where they can literally see about a foot in front of them. They are trying to navigate mangled metal. And they’re also in a place that it is now presumed that people have lost their lives.”

More Key Bridge collapse coverage:

‘The whole bridge just fell down’

Reports came in around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday that a large vessel had crashed into a column in the central part of the bridge that carries north and southbound lanes of Interstate 695. It’s not clear what caused the actual crash, but the ship’s crew notified authorities of a power issue through a mayday call before it struck the bridge.

Sound of first responders from Broadcastify/AP

Radio communication between emergency responders illustrates how police had roughly 90 seconds to cut off traffic on the bridge before it crumbled.

The officers can be heard discussing how traffic must be stopped to make sure no one is on the bridge because a ship lost control of its steering. They mention the construction crew.

Around a minute into the recording, the vessel struck the bridge and a destructive scene immediately unfolded.

“The whole bridge just fell down,” one officer said. “Start, start whoever, everybody … the whole bridge just collapsed.”

Because of the warning, Moore said port authority workers were able to stop traffic and prevent more vehicles from traveling onto the bridge.

“These people are heroes,” Moore said. “They saved lives last night.”

Two other workers were rescued, with one in serious condition as of Tuesday night, Moore said. That person was released earlier Wednesday. The other was uninjured.

Their crew was repairing potholes on the bridge when the container ship crashed into it, Paul Wiedefeld, the state’s transportation secretary, said.

Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knew members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks.

Synergy Marine Group manages the ship, which is called Dali. In a news release the group said one crew member who was injured on the vessel was taken to the hospital and later discharged. All other crew members along with the two pilots are safe.

The management group also said its emergency response team is in Baltimore “to support the ongoing efforts to ensure crew safety, maintain vessel integrity and facilitate the swift and safe reopening of the waterway.”

Amid search for bodies, U.S. Coast Guard assessing debris

Crews are beginning to assess the wreckage in order to make a plan to reopen the port.

Moore said the this was not just a “Maryland crisis” but also a “global crisis.”

“The national economy and the world’s economy depends on the Port of Baltimore, the port handles more cars and more farm equipment than any other ports in the country,” Moore said.

At a White House press briefing earlier Wednesday, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Pierre Gautier said the top priority is restoring the waterway for shipping and removing the container ship.

The party responsible for the Singapore-flagged ship, Resolve Marine Incorporated, has begun “mobilizing resources to take the next steps appropriate to refloat the vessel and remove it,” which Gautier said is required by the Coast Guard.

The Army Corps of Engineers is leading the efforts to assess and restore the waterway, Gautier said.

“The vessel is stable, but it still has over 1.5 million gallons of fuel oil and lube oil onboard,” he said.

That’s in addition to the 4,700 cargo containers on board, 56 of which contain hazardous materials — though the admiral said the materials don’t pose any risk to the public. Two containers fell overboard but they don’t contain anything hazardous, he said.

Around 13 containers on the bow of the ship were damaged as the bridge collapsed. Debris needs to be removed before the vessel can be taken out of the channel.

“The vessel bow is sitting on the bottom because of the weight of that bridge debris on there,” Gautier said. “There is no indication that there’s any flooding or any damage underneath the waterline to that vessel.”

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said President Joe Biden has ordered Army Corps of Engineers to “do everything necessary to clear the channel,” adding that the federal government will pick up the costs to do that.

“I saw preliminary estimates between $40 million and $50 million, but they’re very preliminary. But the bottom line is the Army Corps will pick up the cost,” Van Hollen said.

The crew of the ship remains onboard and is cooperating with the investigation. Most members of the crew are Indian, while one is from Sri Lanka.

When asked about possible future regulations on new bridges to protect against similar collapses, Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said it would be difficult to mandate.

“It’s not just as big as a building, it’s really as big as a block,” Buttigieg said of the ship. “One hundred thousand tons all going into this pier, all at once.”

Investigators recover ‘black box’ recorder

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation, and the agency’s chair Jennifer Homendy said she believes a small team briefly boarded the ship Tuesday night.

Investigators had previously held off on boarding the ship earlier in the day to make room for the Coast Guard’s search efforts, she said.

The U.S. Coast Guard was able to get the voyage data recorder off the ship, Homendy told WTOP.

The NTSB was able to download the recorder and send it off to a lab, she said.

“That will give us help, give us a lot of information about the vessel and the operation of the vessel,” Homendy said. “It will begin to develop a timeline of events for us of what led to the striking of the bridge.”

A larger group of investigators is expected to board the ship Wednesday in search of indicators that could point to what went wrong onboard, Homendy said. That gathering of evidence will include collecting electronic information such as logs as well as documenting information about the vessel and the bridge.

While she said officials’ highest priority is the recovery effort for the construction workers, NTSB is also working to collect evidence while the wreckage is still in place.

“This will get cleaned up and moved very quickly at some point, and that all of that evidence would be gone,” she said, adding that it’s “utter devastation.”

Major shipping hub shut down to vessel traffic

Baltimore’s Key Bridge was built in 1977 and named for the writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It spans the Patapsco River, a vital artery that, along with the Port of Baltimore, is a hub for shipping on the East Coast.

Ship traffic entering and leaving the Port of Baltimore is suspended until further notice. Maryland Congressman David Trone was told in a briefing the port’s closure will cost the economy at least $15 million a day, according to a statement from his office.

The crash will disrupt the country’s shipping industry and undoubtedly create headaches for commuters who rely on the bridge.

Biden said the federal government should pay for rebuilding the bridge, and Moore said he’s discussing his legislative options to speed up the recovery with Maryland’s General Assembly and the Biden administration.

“We know that this is going to have to be all hands on deck when we’re talking about the long-term recovery and for what it’s going to mean, not just for elements of the Key Bridge, but all the other elements that this has impacted,” Moore said.

Trone, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, echoed that it will be a team effort to rebuild.

“Right now, at the federal level, we’re actively exploring the use of ‘quick release’ emergency relief funds in partnership with Secretary Buttigieg and the urgent deployment of Congressionally approved funding,” Trone wrote in a statement Wednesday.

In 2023, the port handled a record 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo. Moore said the harbor is responsible for $191 million of economic activity daily.

“For everybody who was buying cars, for everybody who was buying farm equipment, we’re the largest port in the country that does that,” he said Wednesday morning while speaking with reporters. “This is not just impacting Maryland.”

Moore said he’s “overwhelmed” by the amount of support from fellow governors, philanthropists and others looking to help.

“Maryland, we really appreciate the love that’s been coming from around the country and the support,” Moore said. “I tell them, the people who need it most are these families.”

WTOP’s Luke Lukert and Ciara Wells and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

Thomas Robertson

Thomas Robertson is an Associate Producer and Web Writer/Editor at WTOP. After graduating in 2019 from James Madison University, Thomas moved away from Virginia for the first time in his life to cover the local government beat for a small daily newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio.

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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