As six construction workers remained unaccounted for after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed Tuesday morning an executive with the company where they worked and Maryland’s Coast Guard said it is presumed they had died.

Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders, said in a phone interview that he doesn’t think the workers could have survived, although no official word has come down.

“We’re presuming that they are not alive because they were thrown into the bay in an area that’s 50 feet deep, with 46 degree temperature, probably buried under tons of steel,” Pritzker said.

“The company is in mourning and it’s a terrible, unanticipated tragedy,” he added.

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An official with the Coast Guard said at an evening press briefing that they had suspended the search at 7:30 p.m. and would resume in the morning. It had transitioned to a recovery effort, said Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District.

A view of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge wreckage seen from Ft. McHenry on March 26, 2024. The bridge collapsed early Tuesday morning when a cargo ship collided with it. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Divers will be sent out at 6 a.m. Wednesday to help find the workers’ bodies, said Roland Butler Jr., the Maryland State Police superintendent. The divers will work with a structural engineer to navigate around the debris in the water because there could be sharp edges from the bridge that could puncture a suit or an airline.

“We have difficult water temperatures, we have structures in the water that can move,” Gilreath said. “We do not want to injure any of these first responders in any of the recovery efforts.”

The Francis Scott Key bridge toppled into the Patapsco River early Tuesday after being struck by a cargo ship that had lost power, and rescue teams were frantically searching for six members of a construction crew believed to have fallen into the waters below.

Authorities said the ship was departing the Port of Baltimore around 1:30 a.m. when it struck a column of the 1.6-mile-long bridge. Dramatic video showed the ship’s lights shutting off and flickering before making contact with the bridge, which buckled and collapsed 20 seconds after collision.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said the ship’s crew had notified authorities of a mayday caused by a “power issue.” That enabled transportation officials to stop traffic traveling over the bridge.

“I have to say I’m thankful for the folks who once the point came up and notification came up, that there was a mayday,” Moore said. “Who literally by being able to stop cars from coming over the bridge, these people are heroes. They saved lives.”

Officials initially said they were concerned that up to 20 people had plunged into the water but later revised that number.

“To hear the words, ‘the Key Bridge has collapsed,’ it’s shocking, and heartbreaking,” Moore said in a mid-morning news conference.

Eight members of a construction crew repairing potholes were believed to have fallen into the water, two of whom were rescued.

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Moore Tuesday night ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-staff until further notice in honor of those killed.

“It’s a really heartbreaking conclusion to a challenging day,” he said. “We put every single asset possible – air, land and sea assets – to add to the members’ survivability for these families. While even though we’re moving on now to a recovery mission, we’re still fully committed to making sure that we’re going to use every single asset to now bring a sense of closure to the families.”

He and other officials said recovery and rebuilding efforts would take time.

“This is no ordinary bridge,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said from Baltimore. “This is one of the cathedrals of American infrastructure. It has been part of the skyline of this region for longer than many of us have been alive.”

“So the path to normalcy will not be easy. It will not be quick. It will not be inexpensive,” he added. “But we will rebuild together.”

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Local and federal officials ruled early that the crash was an accident and not intentional.

President Joe Biden addressed the bridge collapse from the White House, pledging that the federal government would pick up the “entire” cost of repairing the bridge and that he “expected” Congress to support such efforts.

Biden stressed the importance of the Port of Baltimore and its 15,000 jobs, saying: “We’re going to do everything we can to protect those jobs and help those workers.”

(Read full coverage of Key Bridge collapse)

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“It’s going to take some time, but the people of Baltimore can count on us though to stick with them every step of the way, ‘til the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt,” said Biden, who noted he had traveled over the bridge many times. “We’re not leaving until this job gets done.”

Jesus Campos, an employee of contractor Brawner Builders, had worked the overnight shift of the bridge work before switching to another. He said the missing men are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, and live in Dundalk and Highlandtown. They are in their 30s and 40s, he said, with spouses and children.

All of them came to the city for a better life, he said — not necessarily for themselves, but for the loved ones they left behind in their home countries.

“They are all hard-working, humble men,” he said.

Gilreath did not give details about the missing workers because he said the investigation was ongoing.

Moore said he’s had the opportunity to spend time with families and pray with them. He described their strength as “absolutely remarkable.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg gives an update to reporters at a news conference in Dundalk after a cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key bridge early Tuesday, March 26, 2024, collapsing the bridge into the Patapsco River. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“This is an excruciating day for several families who went to bed last night having it be a normal night and woke up today to news that no one wants to receive,” Buttigieg said. “They are hoping and praying, and we are hoping and praying with them.”

Synergy Marine Group, the technical manager for the Singapore cargo ship Dali said in a statement that all 22 crew members on board, including two pilots, have been accounted for and there were no reported injuries. The company said owners and managers are cooperating with government agencies.

Out of the 27 inspections documented for Dali since 2015, two have found deficiencies, according to an online database maintained by Electronic Quality Shipping Information System. In 2016, the ship was found to have hull damage and in June an inspection found problems with “propulsion and auxiliary machinery.”

The 985-foot-long, 95,000 gross ton vessel was last inspected in September by the U.S. Coast Guard, which found no deficiencies, according to the database.

Container ships are guided in and out of Baltimore waters by Chesapeake Bay pilots. These men and women relay instructions to the captain at the wheel of a container ship. The ships are too big and waters too unfamiliar for foreign pilots to navigate the bay themselves.

Real-time ship tracking website VesselFinder shows the ship, originally bound for Colombo, Sri Lanka, stopped under the bridge, and had recently made port calls in Norfolk, Virginia, New York and Panama. The vessel is owned by Grace Ocean Private Ltd., which could not be reached for comment.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore gives an update to reporters at a news conference in Dundalk after a cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key bridge early Tuesday, March 26, 2024, collapsing the bridge into the Patapsco River. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Moore declared a state of emergency following the collapse, and said the federal government was sending resources to help the city, county and state teams already on the scene.

NTSB said a team of 24 investigators was on scene but standing back as not to impede search and rescue efforts. That includes accessing recording devices on the ship that may have captured critical information about what took place aboard.

The bridge, which opened this week in 1977 and sees 11.3 million vehicles cross annually, linked Interstate 695 over the Patapsco and was one of three ways to cross Baltimore’s harbor.

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The collapse shut down vessel traffic into and out of the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore. The port will likely be shut down for some time, which could be a crippling blow to commerce in the region and beyond. Port officials noted that trucks were still being processed within the marine terminals.

“At this time we do not know how long vessel traffic will be suspended,” officials said.

Images after the collapse show orange cones blocking traffic on the westbound lanes. A budget document from the MDTA show the bridge needed a total replacement of the concrete deck and some structural repairs to prolong its lifespan.

Jenny Luna said her father-in-law, Miguel Luna, was one of seven construction workers believed to be on the bridge at the time of the collapse. She hasn’t heard anything about his whereabouts. She said her husband got a call from a friend this morning and they headed to the bridge seeking information.

Rescue crews battled darkness, murky water and rising tides, according to officials on the scene. Cartwright said the pre-dawn visibility was “poor to none.”

“We can certainly dive in these conditions, but we have to take a lot of factors into play,” Baltimore Fire Chief James Wallace said at one of several Tuesday briefings.

Temperatures this morning hovered in the mid 40s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A person in water that cold without protective equipment can expect to remain conscious for about an hour, and can survive for about three hours, according to the National Weather Service.

“We’re going to rely on our experts, our dive teams that are here, to tell us when they’ve reached that non-survival point,” Wallace said.

“Pray for those impacted,” wrote Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in a post on X. He and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott wrote that they were coordinating with each other as well as state officials. Scott later said the scenes were “like something out of an action movie.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gives updates on the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse at a news conference on Fort Smallwood Road Tuesday morning.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gives updates on the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse at a news conference on Fort Smallwood Road Tuesday morning. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Before shipping can resume into and out of the port, crews will need to pull debris out of the water and clear the 50-foot-deep channel that ships used, said William P. Doyle, a former director of the port who now heads the Dredging and Marine Construction Association of America.

”You’re going to have to pick out the trusses and parts of the bridge that are in the water,” Doyle said. “The channel is going to be closed. That means any of the larger vessels that are in the Inner Harbor Port of Baltimore — inside of the Key Bridge — are going to remain there until further notice. All the other ships coming up the Chesapeake Bay are going to have to go on anchorage or divert to another port.”

State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, whose district includes the bridge, was shocked and horrified upon learning of the bridge collapse.

”This is unbelievable. More than anything, I’m praying for people and their families. I know there is going to be a loss of life, and that is devastating,” said Salling, a Republican from southeastern Baltimore County.

Maryland regulations prohibit vehicles carrying hazardous materials from using the Fort McHenry Tunnel or Harbor Tunnel, instead requiring them to be routed them over the Key Bridge. State transportation officials said they were instructing such vehicles to use the western section of I-695 instead.

The American Trucking Associations said the collapse would have “significant and long-lasting impacts on the region” as vehicles carrying hazardous materials will now face detours of about 30 extra miles. “This will add significant cost in time, fuel and delays for trucks traveling through the region, on top of the disruption that a closure of the Port of Baltimore will inflict on our economy,” a spokesperson said.

The collapse comes nearly a year to the day that six members of a construction crew were killed after being struck by speeding vehicles while working on the opposite side of I-695.

Banner reporters Lee Sanderlin, Penelope Blackwell and Clara Longo de Freitas contributed to this story.