A Maryland pilot was on the bridge of the Dali at 1:25 a.m. Tuesday when the entire ship suddenly went dark. Without warning, the generator, the radar, the navigational equipment, the ship’s propulsion and the engine all shut down.

The 984-foot-long Dali was adrift and headed toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Somehow, in three minutes the ship’s pilot was able to alert the Coast Guard, drop a port anchor and steer away.

“The pilot ordered a hard left rudder, and dropped the port anchor to try to keep the ship from moving right,” said Clayton L. Diamond, executive director and general counsel for The American Pilots’ Association. “The pilot did everything he could to slow the ship.”

But without a functioning engine, and therefore propulsion to move the ship toward the center of the channel that runs under the bridge, he had little chance of averting the disaster and Dali crashed into the bridge causing a stunning collapse.

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Key to understanding what went wrong will be figuring out what failure hit both the engine, which is powered by diesel fuel, and the generator at the same time. Diamond said he can’t speculate on the cause. Both the generator and the engine are in the same area of the ship, he said. “We don’t have any idea why the engine stopped working,” Diamond said.

The Dali had a backup generator which brought back electricity to some important functions on the ship, including the rudder, but without the engine, the pilot could do little as the large cargo ship was moving through the water without the ability to turn away from the brightly lit bridge.

“There was very little time,” Diamond said, “He had the quick action to have the bridge contacted to have it closed. That undoubtedly saved lives.”

The Maryland pilot who guided the ship received years of training to become a pilot, has a state license which requires knowledge of the local waters and has more than a decade of experience. An apprentice pilot was on board observing the pilot, but Diamond said he was new to the pilot training program, having started on Feb. 1, and was not involved in any of the decisions during the three minutes before the crash.

Diamond said he has spoken with the pilot, who he declined to name, and he is doing as well as can be expected given the traumatic event.

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To become a ship’s pilot, most people have at least eight to 10 years of experience on a merchant ship, working their way up to becoming captain of the merchant vessel. They then train for several more years to become a pilot, who navigates but does not steer container ships. The steering is left to the foreign captain of the ship, who usually stands on the bridge with the pilot but does not know the local waters. Each pilot must get a state license to operate in a particular location, in this case the Chesapeake Bay.

This story will be updated.

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