Baltimore bridge collapse: Profits before people

Six highway maintenance workers died while fixing potholes on the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore when it collapsed after being hit by a massive container ship on March 26. All six worked for Brawner Builders. 

Cargo carrier Dali under portions of collapsed Key Bridge. Baltimore, Maryland, March 29, 2023.

They deserve to be acknowledged by name. Miguel Luna, from El Salvador, was a father of three who had lived in Maryland for over 19 years. Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, was originally from Guatemala. Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, living in Baltimore, was originally from Mexico. Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, 34, father of two children, migrated from Honduras. Jose Mynor Lopez, 35, came to the U.S. from Guatemala 19 years ago. The sixth worker, also from Mexico, was a man named Carlos whose full name has not been released. (Washington Post, March 26)

Emergency responders rescued two other workers from the water. The bodies of Fuentes and Cabrera were recovered in a pickup truck 25 feet deep in the Patapsco River. The other four have yet to be found.

Maryland state police also reported that several vehicles were on the bridge when it collapsed and likely went into the water. The people in them would be presumed dead, yet there is scant information about this in corporate news sources covering the bridge collapse.

But one thing is certain: All those who died were victims of capitalist greed. Had worker safety standards been followed, this accident could have been prevented.

95,000-ton out-of-control vessel struck bridge

The Key Bridge, named after enslaver Francis Scott Key, author of the racist military anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was struck by the Dali. This 95,000-ton, 948-foot-long cargo ship was attempting to exit the Port of Baltimore shortly after midnight on March 26. The Dali, with capacity to hold 10,000 containers, was sailing under the Singapore flag with 22 crew members.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported that the Dali left port at 12:39 a.m., traveling at about 8 miles per hour. Two 5,000-horsepower tugboats assisted its passage from its berth, but then pulled away. When power on the vessel stopped working at 1:24 a.m., the pilot belatedly called for assistance from tugboats in the area and notified the Maryland Transportation Authority about a power outage on the ship that left it in total darkness. The ship reportedly tried to drop anchor as it approached the Key Bridge. The MTA rushed to close the bridge to additional traffic but claimed there was no time to reach the workers on the bridge before the collapse. 

Constructed in 1977, the Key Bridge was a cantilever-type bridge which lacked “redundant structures” — extra base protection for its essential supporting span columns — that may have lessened the ship’s impact. Yet U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaking in Baltimore on March 26, admitted: “I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size.” (Washington Post, March 26)

Maritime experts say it could have made a difference if the tugs had escorted the carrier past the bridge. “I’m a big fan of tug escorts,” said Joseph Ahlstrom, a member of the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of the State of New York, which regulates the state’s harbor pilots. “If applied early enough and effectively, yes, a tug escort could prevent a collision with the bridge or with another ship or going aground.” (AP News, March 29)

David Heindel, president of the Seafarers International Union, representing U.S. merchant mariners, noted: “One of the things that was hard for me to believe is that they didn’t require tugs on the vessel as it was traversing towards the bridge.”  

“Some ports require tugs, depending on the vessel, usually tankers. You see where tugs have to escort ships in and out of port, especially narrow ports,” Heindel said. “In the end, I think that that may be exactly what happens in the Port of Baltimore.” (AP News)

Profits vs. workers’ safety

At $15,000 per vessel, tugs are upfront costs which a lot of shipping companies don’t want to pay, even when pilots consider them a safety factor while navigating out of a port like Baltimore’s. They could have saved the lives of the six workers.

The Dali was chartered by Maersk Line Limited, which had been sanctioned eight months earlier by government regulators for blocking its workers from directly reporting safety concerns to the U.S. Coast Guard and for retaliating against a Maersk worker for reporting unsafe conditions. One of the world’s largest shipping companies, Maersk operates in 130 countries, employing 100,000 workers and reporting over $51 billion in revenue in 2023.

Approved by company executives, Maersk had “a policy that requires employees to first report their concerns to Maersk … prior to reporting it to the [Coast Guard] or other authorities.” (Transportation, The Lever, March 26)

Bridge construction vs. globalization

Safety concerns surfaced a short time after construction of the bridge was completed. In 1980, the Army Corps of Engineers warned about the danger created by the lack of procedures in either direction to stop traffic. But even after 45 years of warnings, no law was passed nor policy put in place to mandate that tugs accompany these gigantic freighters out to open ocean water. Despite numerous accidents, the concerns of the shipping industry to cut costs in order to maximize profits were always given priority.

When construction on the Key Bridge began in 1970, container ships were a new phenomenon, adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The growth of container ships — both in numbers and size — paralleled the expansion of globalization — the export of entire production structures from the U.S. and other imperialist countries to the developing world. This technological revolution in capitalist production totally transformed international shipping.

Globalization required bigger and bigger container ships. A 2021 United Nations’   report found that cargo ship capacity had increased by 155% from 2006 to 2020. Safety incidents involving large vessels globally increased 9% in 2022. (The Guardian, March 29)

The Dali is not the largest container ship today. The Ever Given, notorious for blocking the Suez Canal in March 2021, was 1,312 feet long. These enormous ships can carry up to 10,000 shipping containers. At the time of the wreck, the Dali was using under 5,000 of its available containers.

Planned vs. unplanned economies

During its massive economic growth over the past 30 years, China has expanded port construction in a planned way to account for the ever-increasing size of carrier ships. In the U.S., where the primary concern is to increase the rate of profits, few changes have been made to infrastructure in general from the 1980s to today. Despite the enormous growth in the size and weight of container ships — it is much more profitable to send one big vessel than to send more smaller ones — ports and bridges have been left as they were in 1980. 

This is symbolic of the development of capitalism which always puts profits before human needs.

What’s next for Baltimore workers?

The Port of Baltimore is the ninth busiest U.S. harbor, with cargo including cars and liquefied natural gas regularly passing through. In 2023, the port handled around 50 million tons of cargo, valued at $80 billion, moving between the U.S. and other countries. The port processed over 840,000 cars — 70% imported — in 2023. (Al Jazeera, March 30)

It is estimated that the port’s closure could cost the economy $15 million per day. More than 20,000 jobs are directly impacted by the port’s closure, with an additional 140,000 jobs dependent on port activity. Port workers may be able to access unemployment insurance, but immigrant day laborers, like the six who died on March 26, could find themselves with no source of income in the event of an accident — if they survive.

With the Baltimore port shut down for months, and with years needed to rebuild the bridge, it will be the workers who pay the price. It is clear that the shutdown will lead to mass layoffs, with Maryland’s economy taking a hit.

Workers in this country have fought and many died for worker safety rules and laws. When safety measures are ignored, as happened in Baltimore, it can be considered murder, but there are too many loopholes in these laws to really guarantee worker safety. What is clear, however, is that the corporations responsible should be made to pay.

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