It took a decade of planning and building to erect the Francis Scott Key Bridge, a project that began as a tunnel and was so beset by overruns and delays that it opened unceremoniously on March 23, 1977.

It stood for 47 years, its enormous steel latticework visible for miles, a staple of the Baltimore skyline and backdrop for sailing trips, fishing excursions and daily commutes.

Less than 20 seconds was all it took for it to collapse into the Patapsco River on Tuesday.

In the post-midnight stillness, under a full moon, came a mayday call from the 95,000-ton cargo ship Dali. Its power flickered. An order to drop anchor. The urgent call to halt traffic.

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The thunderous crash.

Seven members of a construction crew working on the bridge’s deck plunged to the dark waters below, along with steel and concrete.

Twenty seconds, and the Key Bridge fell.

The collapse of the Key Bridge happened early morning Tuesday, March 26, 2024.
The collapse of the Key Bridge happened early morning Tuesday. (StreamTimeLive)

The wreckage will remain long after the last bit of steel is pulled from the Patapsco. Marylanders over the past week began to come to grips with the scope of the devastation. A bridge that for years connected the region is for now a blockade severing the city’s port from the world, threatening thousands of jobs. Officials have pledged to rebuild, a process that at best could take years.

A structure that seemed forever a part of Baltimore is gone.

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The collapse has been described as a one-in-a-million event, in which everything that could go wrong did.

And yet, within that undeniably tragic backdrop, there were stories of strength and, yes, luck. A rallying cry emerged: Maryland tough, Baltimore strong.

But the haunting images of the structure tumbling like a children’s toy have reverberated around the country and beyond. We trust such infrastructure to be permanent, unshakeable. Now we wonder.

· · ·

The Francis Scott Key Bridge wasn’t supposed to be a bridge at all.

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In the mid-1960s, with the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel regularly clogged with traffic, the state highway agency recommended completing the Baltimore Beltway’s loop by connecting Sollers Point and Fort Armistead with a second, two-lane tunnel underneath the Patapsco.

The legislature in 1966 enacted a bill authorizing the new harbor tunnel, along with a second span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes said the tunnel would “tie together and make possible orderly development of highly important industrial areas in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.”

But, when the tunnel costs ballooned, a four-lane bridge reemerged as a cheaper alternative and the project changed course in 1971.

It was first known as the Outer Harbor Bridge, but veterans groups and historians lobbied to name it for Francis Scott Key, because it was believed Key had written a poem that would become “The Star-Spangled Banner” after watching the bombing of Fort McHenry in 1812 from within 100 yards of the bridge’s eventual footprint.

Some gave it another name: boondoggle. The Evening Sun editorial board would write that there had been “mammoth cost overruns and financial intrigue, all reaching, typically, into the heart of the state’s rotten political core.”

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When it finally opened, observers marveled at the vistas — a view of Baltimore previously known only to mariners, and from a height exceeding that of any crow’s nest, one account put it.

The fee: 75 cents for automobiles, 50 cents per axle for trucks.

During her first driver’s test, in 1982, then-Lutherville resident Carol Burns recalled that the instructor took her over the Key Bridge. “You done that, kid,” he told her, after having her stop so he could buy cigarettes from a corner store. “Now you can go across any bridge without fear.”

Melissa Stremmel took the bridge home to Glen Burnie every night after long days teaching at Overlea High School in Baltimore County. She would roll her windows down, soak in the sounds and smells of the city and play jazz music as she crossed into the darkness, lit by the lights of the bridge and the city. “Felt like home to me,” she recalled.

Over the years, as the Key Bridge stayed the same, the shipping industry built bigger and bigger vessels. Still, there was a 1,200-foot-wide channel for ships to cross, with about 130 feet of clearance at the apex. So-called “dolphins” — a group of concrete pilings — were put into place, in hopes that, if a ship wandered from the channel, it would hit them instead of the bridge column and pinball back into the channel.

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Even in the early days, officials warned that the bridge couldn’t withstand a ship’s impact.

“I would have to say if that ship hit the Bay Bridge or the Key Bridge — I’m talking about the main supports, a direct hit — it would knock it down,” a state official told The Baltimore Sun in 1980 after the Sunshine Skyway bridge collapsed in Tampa Bay after being struck by a cargo ship.

Yet, for five decades, thousands of such ships passed through without incident. Until the Dali.

· · ·

The Singapore-flagged cargo ship was supposed to embark on a 28-day trip to the other side of the world.

The ship, at 984 feet about the same length as the Eiffel Tower and carrying 4,700 stacked shipping containers, was headed to Sri Lanka. After departing Baltimore, it would glide through the Chesapeake Bay and sail across the Atlantic Ocean before bending around South Africa to avoid the Red Sea and Yemeni rebels who have been attacking ships there.

The ship disembarked from Seagirt Marine Terminal at 12:39 a.m., flanked by two tugboats helping it make those early maneuvers, and entered the Patapsco River channel at 1:07 a.m. The tugboats peeled off.

Red flashing lights danced atop the Key Bridge. Vehicles crisscrossed in both directions.

Members of a construction crew that had been filling potholes were sitting in their cars on the bridge, waiting for the concrete to dry so the lane could be reopened.

The workers ranged in age from 26 to 49, all immigrants from Central American countries who had settled in Southeastern Baltimore and Baltimore County. Men like Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, the youngest of eight children in a small, poor town in Honduras. Here, he always worked at least two jobs, from gardening to painting, so he could send $600 to $800 home every month. His contributions helped family open a hotel and supported youth soccer teams, among other things.

“He said it didn’t matter what time or where the job was, you had to be where the work was,” a brother told The Associated Press.

Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, originally from Mexico, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, from Guatemala, sat inside a red pickup truck. Julio Cervantes was in another car.

Construction workers honored the Key Bridge victims during a press conference on March 28, 2024 at CASA's Baltimore worker center. They held white flowers and raised their hands in solidarity.
Construction workers honored the Key Bridge victims during a press conference Thursday at CASA's Baltimore worker center. They held white flowers to their chests and raised their hands in solidarity. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Pavel Mena, background, holds up a fist to show support while his colleagues speak. Construction workers honored the Key Bridge victims during a press conference on March 28, 2024 at CASA's Baltimore worker center. They held white flowers and raised their hands in solidarity.
Pavel Mena, background, holds up a fist to show support while his colleagues speak. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

These shifts were inherently dangerous, with drivers — those who were drunk, distracted and drowsy — the main cause for concern. But ships? Never.

In addition to the Dali’s 20-member crew from India, a local pilot more familiar with the Chesapeake Bay was helping guide the ship when everything started going wrong. The ship’s generator, the radar, the navigational equipment, the ship’s propulsion and the engine shut down. As it drifted perilously with the currents, the pilot ordered a hard left rudder and dropped the port anchor to try to stop the ship. But, without power or propulsion, he had little chance of averting disaster.

“The pilot did everything he could to slow the ship,” said Clayton L. Diamond, executive director and general counsel for The American Pilots’ Association.

Crucially, the pilot radioed in a mayday alert that was received by Cpl. Jeremy Herbert, the duty officer working that night at the Maryland Transportation Authority Police’s central command station.

Sgt. Paul Pastorek, a 19-year veteran assigned to the K-9 unit, was working overtime construction detail and was on the north side of the bridge. Officer Garry Kirts, also working overtime, was on the south side.

“I need one of you guys on the south side, one of you guys on the north side,” an officer, believed to be Herbert, radioed at 1:27 a.m. “Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge. There’s a ship approaching that just lost their steering. So until they get that under control we gotta stop all traffic.”

“Just make sure no one’s on the bridge right now,” one of the officers said around 1:28 a.m. “If there’s a crew up there, you might want to notify whoever the foreman is to see if we can get them off the bridge temporarily.”

The last two cars to cross the bridge headed south.

Larry Desantis poses for a portrait outside his workplace, Herman's Bakery, in Dundalk on March 28, 2024. Desantis was one of the last drivers to cross the bridge moments before it collapsed.
Larry Desantis was one of the last drivers to cross the bridge moments before it collapsed. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

· · ·

Mike Singer, 58, and his wife moved in 2016 to a waterfront home in Pasadena, with views stretching several miles into the shipping channel. An avid ship watcher, he helped set up a camera trained on the Key Bridge to stream on the internet.

About 4 a.m. Tuesday, Singer was awakened by notifications on his phone. Something was up. “Oh God. No,” he typed after reading messages on the Facebook administrators group for the livestream.

He went to his computer, looked at his video feed. The bridge had fallen.

“It’s surreal,” Singer said. “This icon of our city: gone. Just unbelievable.

“It’s never something you think of as being a reality that this giant piece of infrastructure that’s been around for 50 years can just be gone.”

· · ·

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott attends a press conference about the Key Bridge collapse Wednesday. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The night before, Mayor Brandon Scott had given an annual address, in which he declared the state of the city was strong. He, his fiancée and their 3-month-old son had stayed up late into the night watching women’s college basketball. It was close to 1:30 a.m., after the baby fell asleep, that the mayor finally got to lie down.

He had barely put his head on the pillow when his phone rang early Tuesday morning.

The call came from Baltimore City Fire Chief James Wallace. The chief was en route to the southern tip of Baltimore and told Scott the Key Bridge had just collapsed.

“I said, ‘Repeat that, Chief,” Scott recounted in an interview with The Banner. “He said, ‘The Key Bridge is gone. A ship ran into it.’”

The new father thrust back into executive mode. He got what information he could from Wallace. He called Gov. Wes Moore and the governor’s chief of staff, and alerted the rest of his executive team.

As the mayor traveled the long way around the harbor, it became clear that already the city had changed. Typically on that drive, he would have seen the Key Bridge in the distance.

”But it wasn’t there. And that’s when it really sunk in,” he said.

”My immediate thought was those people — wondering how many people were on the bridge,” Scott said.

· · ·

A highway inspector, initially described as being rescued from the water, ran to safety, while one of the seven construction workers, Cervantes, got out of his vehicle and grabbed onto a pile of crushed concrete and rebar from the collapsed bridge, where he was rescued by a police boat.

The frigid water’s dangerous and dark conditions — coupled with the mangled steel and concrete debris — made recovery, much less a rescue, nearly impossible.

The bodies of Fuentes and Cabrera were recovered the following day from inside a red pickup truck submerged 25 feet into the Patapsco. The rest remain somewhere in the wreckage.

Operations have shifted to removing the bridge from the water.

The urgency of reopening the port has set in. The jobs of more than 8,000 people rely on ships coming and going.

On Saturday morning, large crowds moved about at Fort McHenry, where the Key Bridge would normally be the backdrop for cherry blossoms in their spring glory. Instead, a different view commanded visitors’ attention.

The remnants of the Key Bridge is viewed through the cherry blossoms at Fort McHenry on March 30, 2024.
The remnants of the Key Bridge are viewed through the cherry blossoms at Fort McHenry. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Three generations of the Brown family took in the sight. “When I heard about it, I had a pit my stomach, and when I walked over the hill and saw it, I had that same feeling,” said Eloise Brown, 73.

Her son Jim, 42, wanted to see for himself. His sons, ages 6 and 8, played nearby. At their age, a bridge is just a bridge. For Jim, it was a familiar landmark, part of the skyline.

He noted the opportunity to build “a Baltimore-branded bridge to come under” that is ready for the challenges of rising sea levels and today’s bigger ships.

A fresh chapter. “A new gateway to the city,” he said.

This story includes reporting by Liz Bowie, Lee Sanderlin, Dylan Segelbaum, Brenna Smith and Adam Willis.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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