On a clear afternoon in early January 2011, the Geeta, a 600-foot-long ship, set sail out of Baltimore.

With little wind and the tide running out, the Liberian-flagged coal ship chugged under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, out of the Patapsco River and into the Chesapeake Bay. It made it 12 miles before disaster struck.

The Geeta lost power, which caused its engine to cut out. Its pilot, a licensed Marylander capable of navigating the muddy estuary, ordered the anchor dropped. Within two minutes of losing engines, an emergency generator cut on.

But it was too late. The ship, laden with more than 40,000 tons of coal, had drifted out of the shipping lane and run aground.

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Unlike last month, when the even larger cargo ship Dali crashed into the Key Bridge, causing its collapse and the death of six construction workers and becoming the focus of two federal safety investigations and an FBI probe, the Geeta’s systems failure and subsequent grounding went largely unnoticed.

Propulsion failures like those experienced by the Geeta and the Dali are not uncommon in the Chesapeake Bay or Patapsco River. Since 2010, cargo vessels have lost engine power, electricity or steering in those waters at least 103 times, a Baltimore Banner review of Coast Guard records shows. The data includes investigative reports through March 18. It does not include the Dali.

Of the ships that experienced mechanical troubles in the Bay or Patapsco River, most occurred near ports or in open waters where the potential fallout amounted to little more than extra paperwork for a ship’s officers and repair work for the engineers.

But some instances of engine failure or power loss happened dangerously close, either within a mile or, in some cases, right under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or the since-destroyed Key Bridge. Those instances, some of which The Washington Post first reported, include:

These near misses, along with others here and around the country, raise questions about whether enough safety precautions are in place and if officials could do more to protect bridges with collapse-prone designs from the possibility of a dangerous allision with skyscraper-sized ships.

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Structural engineers have said the Maryland bridges lack proper protections around their support piers. A spokesperson with the Maryland Transportation Authority said the agency has a “renewed focus” on pier protection for the Bay Bridge, but that officials were unaware about previous instances of large ships losing propulsion near either bridge.

“We look forward to a national dialogue between the Coast Guard and all bridge owners on the sense of scale and risks associated with these occurrences,” the spokesperson said.

In most cases of propulsion loss or system blackout in ports or near bridges that The Banner reviewed, there were tugboats escorting the vessels as a precaution. But in the case of the Dali, tugboats had peeled off before its approach to the Key Bridge. While their presence likely could have prevented the catastrophe, there is no requirement for ships coming in and out of Baltimore or the Chesapeake Bay to have tug escorts.

The Dali did more than lose its engines — it also lost electricity — but a review of Coast Guard records shows large ships suffer from engine troubles with regularity. Nationally, the Coast Guard has documented more than 2,100 instances of a shipping vessel losing engine power within one mile of the U.S. coast or on an interior waterway like the Mississippi River since 2010, according to The Banner’s review. That is likely an undercount.

“Those are just the ones that are actually reported,” said Michael Buckley III, chief engineer aboard a cargo ship who has more than three decades experience at sea.

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“The next thing you know, [you report an incident and] you’ve got 20,000 pages of paperwork you’ve got to do … if there’s no harm done you avoid additional and nonessential reporting.”

Losing power or propulsion in open waters is not necessarily a big deal, with experts and experienced mariners saying it’s usually more of a headache than a crisis. But losing vital ship systems in and around ports is a different story, and something that is more likely to happen given the increased strain on various mechanical components and electrical circuitry when maneuvering to and from the docks.

In light of the Key Bridge disaster, it’s likely federal authorities will issue new regulations in the coming weeks or months requiring all cargo ships coming in and out of Baltimore or other similarly situated harbors have tugboat escorts. Although previous would-be disasters may have pointed at a need for such precautions, experts say government safety regulators typically operate under a “no harm, no foul” approach.

“If one particular isolated incident was a close call, the company might do an investigation or the Coast Guard might want to talk to the pilots or captain of the ship, but if there was no loss of life or any sort of damage to property or anything, then that’s really the last you ever hear about it,” said Kevin Calnan, an assistant professor of maritime transportation at the California State University Maritime Academy.

A ship’s biggest flaw? Being manmade

There are at least 6,100 container ships of varying size in operation in the world right now, and hundreds — if not thousands — more tankers, bulk-carriers and roll-on/roll-off cargo ships. The number of ships that experience engine trouble or power loss in a given year that result in a fatal accident is minuscule compared to the number of voyages made.

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Commercial ships are largely subject to strict international safety standards that require crews maintain a certain level of training, perform maintenance regularly, and do regular ship inspections.

But that doesn’t mean malfunctions are a rarity, or even uncommon.

“If you were to talk to any experienced professional mariner that’s been sailing for three or four years, I would be incredibly surprised if they said they hadn’t personally experienced either a loss or propulsion or steering,” Calnan said.

The thing about ships is that something is bound to go wrong aboard them, said Paul Hopson, an engineer aboard commercial ships for 25 years and an inspector for the now defunct ship classification society Germanischer Lloyd for 21 years.

Now retired, Hopson said a crew could be at sea for weeks on end — some journeys can last months — and everything is copacetic until it’s not. Decades ago, while serving aboard a steam-powered ship, he woke up in the middle of the night somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean because things had gone silent. Ships make noise, and silence means problems.

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“I ran out on the open deck and the impression I had was a moonless night, total silence, the ship wasn’t even rocking it was so calm. Beautiful stars,” Hopson said. His vessel was adrift because the engineer on watch flipped the wrong switch, causing everything to shut down.

Another time aboard a more modern diesel-powered ship, Hopson said a bit of wiring overheated and burned up, causing the entire ship to go dark before crews could get another generator going.

Despite stringent international standards, ship parts often wear down. The engine aboard a container ship may run for weeks on end, and the constant use, coupled with the harsh environment of the sea, can wear down parts faster than anticipated. No matter how structured a maintenance plan aboard a ship is, it still requires humans to execute it.

“No man-made thing is built to where it’s totally immune to failure,” Tim McCoy, a professor of marine engineering at the University of Michigan, said. “The closest we get to that is probably spacecraft.”

An eastern view of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Vulnerable bridges need protecting

When a ship loses engine power, it does not automatically lose its ability to steer. The effectiveness of a rudder is largely determined by how much water is moving over it, experts said, and when a ship first loses its engines it can still steer. As it slows, steering ability decreases until it’s nonexistent, and the ship is at the mercy of the currents and winds.

Given the frequency with which ships have lost engine power, and in some cases lost electricity, near bridges with exposed support piers, it was only a matter of when, not if, a catastrophe like the Key Bridge collapse would occur, said Abi Aghayere, a professor of structural engineering at Drexel University.

The Key Bridge and the Bay Bridge are what’s known as “fracture critical,” meaning their design makes them more prone to total collapse in the event something large like a ship crashes into them. There are a handful of major bridges in heavily trafficked waterways that are fracture critical, and some have experienced close calls with ships experiencing mechanical issues.

Most recently, a giant container ship, the APL Qingdao, lost its engines on approach to the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn in New York. Tugboats were alongside the APL Qingdao and were able to secure it.

In 2019, the 723-foot-long ship Barry was making its way out of the Port of New Orleans, headed toward the mouth of the Mississippi. In its path was the Crescent City Connection, the fifth-most-traveled toll bridge in the country. Like the Key, Bay and Verrazzano-Narrows bridges, it is also fracture critical.

Like the Dali, the Barry experienced a total loss of power and propulsion while approaching the bridge. But unlike the Dali, the Barry’s pilot had requested a tugboat escort on the way down the Mississippi River, having had engine troubles in port earlier, Coast Guard records show.

In addition to being fracture critical, the Crescent City Connection is similar to the Bay and Key Bridges in that it also lacks sufficient protection around its piers to prevent collapse if it were struck by big enough ship.

In light of the tragedy in Baltimore, Aghayere said transportation officials across the country have a duty to build sufficient protections for vulnerable bridges. He pointed to a $95 million build underway to protect the support pylons of the Delaware Memorial Bridge as the type of precautionary construction projects transportation authorities can pursue.

“Ninety-five million is a drop in the bucket when you think about the grand scheme of things,” Aghayere said.

The price of avoiding disaster

The thing that separates the previous near-misses at the Key Bridge from the Dali’s fatal allision is luck.

Had the Dali’s systems failed earlier or later in its voyage, it could have missed the bridge entirely, filed away in a Coast Guard report with little to no public scrutiny. Instead, the Hyundai-made Neopanamax container ship will be synonymous with disaster here.

But if it had missed, it would have joined a list of others like it, each one representing a would-be catastrophe.

There was the Tai Promotion, a 738-foot-long vessel that lost propulsion while near the bridge in 2011 because a lube oil pump wasn’t functioning correctly.

In 2015, the pilot aboard a chemical tanker called Dreggen cut the engines on approach to the Port of Baltimore. After the ship passed under the Key Bridge, the engines wouldn’t turn back on, the result of a faulty valve.

The CSL Argosy, a Bahamian-flagged bulk carrier, was less than 3,000 feet from the Key Bridge on Nov. 10, 2019, when its engines cut out because of low air pressure.

Just after midnight on Sep. 23, 2021, another tanker, the Chem Jupiter, lost engine power while on approach to the port. The coordinates in the Coast Guard report put it right under the Key Bridge at the time.

Exactly two months later, the Agios Dimitrios, a ship almost exactly the same size of the Dali, had just passed under the bridge on its way into port when its engines cut off because of an incorrectly calibrated throttle component.

The Agios Dimitrios’ engines were dead for 15 minutes. But it had tugboat escorts, meaning it couldn’t drift in the currents or veer too far off course.

If $95 million for bridge protections is a proverbial drop in the bucket, as Aghayere said, then the cost of a tugboat escort would be microscopic in comparison.

A tugboat escort costs about $3,500 to $5,000 per hour, The Banner previously reported. Conlan, the maritime transportation professor in California, said that’s about how much companies will pay to ship a single container of goods. The Dali can carry about 10,000 containers fully laden, and had about 4,700 aboard at the time of the crash, officials said.

The federal government has already pledged $60 million toward debris recovery efforts and the full cost of cleanup and rebuilding is unknown. Roll Call reported that it’s possible the price tag will soar north of $2 billion. Maersk, the company that chartered the Dali, had operating revenues of $51 billion in 2023.

“[Tugboats] are essentially the cost of three or four containers on board,” Conlan said. “That’s a minimal cost if we can avoid accidents like the one in Baltimore.”

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