President Joe Biden and other elected officials vowed that the federal government would foot the bill to quickly replace the collapsed Key Bridge — and then seek repayment from anyone found liable.

The FBI opened a criminal probe last week into the private shipping company that owns the Dali, whose vessel that’s nearly twice the size of Baltimore’s tallest building took the bridge out. And Baltimore is fighting an effort by the Dali’s owner and manager to limit their liability using an archaic maritime law from the 1800s. In a filing Monday, city attorneys called the their actions “grossly and potentially criminally negligent.”

But a Baltimore Banner review of six previous bridge disasters shows that the government rarely recoups its money — even after fault becomes clear, such as when a tugboat captain is found negligent or a bridge design firm or inspectors fall short of their responsibilities. Here’s what we found:

Interstate 35 Bridge, Minneapolis, August 2007

Thirteen people died when the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed. (Susan Lesch)

What happened? During weekday evening rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007, nearly 500 feet of the I-35W bridge gave way, sending vehicles more than 100 feet into the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured. A design flaw, rather than a ship strike, caused this disaster.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How was it rebuilt? With bipartisan agreement, Congress quickly authorized $250 million for the rebuild, but costs ultimately climbed past $300 million. The bridge project was designated as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief fund, just like the Key Bridge.

Who was held responsible? The National Transportation Safety Board cited the bridge’s design firm for decisions that led to the inadequate reinforcing of the underside of the structure. The board also cited state and federal officials for inadequate design review and inspection protocols that did not identify the flaws. At the time of the collapse, construction materials sitting on the bridge added to the weight that ultimately toppled it. The Minnesota state government compensated bridge victims to the tune of $38 million. Contractor URS Corp., charged with inspecting the bridge before the collapse, paid more than $50 million to victims, but settled a case that the state filed against it for $5 million, the St. Cloud Times reported in 2010. The settlement released the company from future claims in connection to the bridge.

The federal government did not recoup any money for its outlay, a FHWA official said.

Pensacola Bay Bridge, Florida, September 2020

Hurricane Sally devastated the aging Route 98 bridge over the Pensacola Bay. Two new spans were already under construction. ((FDOT/Handout))

What happened? Construction company Skanska was in the midst of building two new bridge spans to replace the aging Route 98 bridge over the Pensacola Bay when Hurricane Sally changed course and devastated the area. The company had 55 barges on site to help transport materials, but said it ran out of time to follow established emergency protocols for mooring them farther from the bridge. The current and winds broke 28 of Skanska’s barges loose, and many of them crashed into the old bridge, which was still in use until the new spans could be completed. A section of the bridge collapsed and was closed to traffic for months.

How was it rebuilt? Skanska was already in the construction process for the new spans as part of a $430 million contract with Florida’s Department of Transportation.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Who was held responsible? Skanska filed to limit its liability — just as the owners of the Dali did — for each of its barges. In a 2023 ruling, a U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling to deny Skanska’s request for limited liability, rejecting the company’s claim that it was caught off guard by the storm and therefore did not act with negligence. The opinion also noted that the 1851 liability act was a “difficult statute” because it addressed “economic realities that are unrecognizable today.” The rulings opened Skanska to a flurry of lawsuits from local businesses claiming economic losses resulting from the severed access to Pensacola Beach. In 2022, the Florida legislature moved to require that new bridge contracts include a liability insurance provision, but the law did not pass.

Claiborne Avenue Bridge, New Orleans, May 1993

One person died and two were seriously injured when a drifting barge struck a supporting pier of the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, causing it to collapse. (G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune)

What happened? In the middle of the afternoon, a barge pushed by a tugboat through a canal struck a support pier of the eastern span of the bridge that connects New Orleans to Chalmette. The impact caused about 145 feet of the bridge’s deck to collapse onto the barge. Two vehicles carrying three people fell, leading to one death and serious injuries for two others. Tugboat crew members told investigators they had pulled the vessel up to the bank to work on its engine, but said it drifted back into the canal before the engine could be restarted.

How was it rebuilt? The bridge was repaired by the construction firm that had built it 36 years earlier, at a cost of about $2 million, or $4.3 million in today’s dollars. Canal traffic reopened within two days of the crash, and vehicle traffic was restored over a replacement bridge in about two months.

Who was held responsible? In federal court, tugboat Captain Andrew Long argued that the state did not adequately protect the pier from marine traffic. The NTSB appeared to agree with him, concluding that state engineers should have known the bridge’s support piers were too vulnerable to ship traffic due to the frequency of other incidents there. The board also found that the design of the bridge made it susceptible to collapse. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, focused its scrutiny on the tugboat captain. A Coast Guard investigator said in the wake of the incident that it was not “prudent” for the captain to have left the wheelhouse unattended while the tugboat’s engine was still engaged. The fight over liability played out for years in civil courts. The tugboat company settled with families of the victims for an undisclosed amount.

It doesn’t appear that federal lawmakers allocated any funding to cover the repair costs. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development did not respond to questions about whether the state paid for the repairs. Congress passed new safety legislation inspired by the New Orleans bridge strike and one that occurred a few months later in Mobile, Alabama.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Big Bayou Canot Bridge, Alabama, September 1993

Heavy barges collided with the Big Bayou Canot Bridge and caused a kink in the rail. An Amtrak passenger train derailed, killing 47. (AP)

What happened? In a predawn fog, the captain of a tugboat pushing barges got lost and ended up in the wrong channel. The boat hit the Big Bayou Canot rail bridge, and while the impact didn’t cause a collapse, it kinked the rail owned by freight company CSX Transportation. Eight minutes later, an Amtrak train traveling just over 70 mph derailed at the kink, bringing the bridge down and plunging into the water. The disaster left 47 dead, making it Amtrak’s deadliest derailment. About 140 feet of bridge span had to be replaced, and about 500 feet of rail was destroyed.

How was it rebuilt? CSX wasted no time and had the bridge fixed in about a week. A freight train passed over the $750,000 replacement just an hour after it reopened — 10 days from when the disaster occurred.

Who was held responsible? The NTSB cited tugboat pilot Willie Odom for “poor decision making” in failing to stop, given that he was approaching a bridge during low visibility. The agency also cited the boat company for not providing adequate navigation training to Odom that could have prevented the wreck, but it found no criminal wrongdoing. Odom surrendered his license after the Coast Guard scheduled a hearing that likely would have resulted in its suspension. More than 100 lawsuits were filed against Amtrak, CSX and Warrior & Gulf Navigation, the owner of the tugboat Odom was piloting, the Associated Press reported in 1998. The company paid $1.4 million to the family of one victim; other victim lawsuits were consolidated into one case. Warrior & Gulf filed to limit its liability under the 1851 law, but later retracted its petition.

Queen Isabella Causeway, Texas, September 2001

A tug pushing four barges collided with a causeway connecting the southern tip of Texas to South Padre Island, causing 10 cars to fall into the water. (CWO2 ROBERT WYMAN/U.S. COAST GUARD DIGITAL)

What happened? A tugboat pushing four barges slammed into a bridge support, bringing down a middle section of the 2.4-mile span connecting the southern tip of Texas to South Padre Island — a slice of coastline similar to Ocean City, Maryland. Eight people died after their cars fell 85 feet into the water.

How was it rebuilt? The Texas Department of Transportation hired a firm to replace the collapsed span for $4.3 million, about $7.6 million in today’s dollars. Those upfront costs and money the state spent for ferries and other alternative transportation services was later reimbursed by the Federal Highway Administration. The bridge reopened about two months after the disaster.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Who was held responsible? The Coast Guard cited tugboat Captain David Fowler for failing to properly navigate the channel, but it did not pursue criminal charges, the Associated Press reported in 2005. Fowler gave up his license. Abnormally strong currents also had pushed Fowler’s boat too close to the support pier.

Interstate 40 bridge, Oklahoma, May 2002

Collapsed I−40 Bridge, near Webbers Falls, Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, in May 2002. (

What happened? A tugboat pushing two empty asphalt tank barges veered off course and rammed into a support pier, collapsing a 503-foot section of the bridge into the Arkansas River. Eight passenger vehicles and three large trucks fell, killing 14 people and injuring 5 others.

How was it rebuilt? The quick rebuild of the I-40 bridge set records at the time, with traffic rolling over a reconstructed bridge within about two months of the collapse. Costs associated with the project, including paying for detours, came in at around $30 million, nearly twice the original estimate. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation hired a contractor for the work.

Who was held responsible? In the aftermath of the collapse, allegations surfaced that the tugboat pilot, Joe Dedmon, was sleep-deprived. Dedmon pushed back, telling investigators he “blacked out” but did not fall asleep. Members of the crew supported his claims, The Washington Post reported at the time. The NTSB found that a heart condition caused the captain to lose consciousness, leading to the collision and collapse. The agency also cited a lack of adequate protection for the bridge and suggested motorist warning systems might have helped save lives.

The federal government reimbursed the state for much of the repair work. To cover the state’s legal and investigative expenses, as well as additional costs, the Oklahoma attorney general sued Dedmon and Magnolia Marine Transport Co., the company that owned the vessels. They settled for $4.5 million in 2004. In that lawsuit, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Limitation of Shipowner’s Liability Act of 1851 applied to the case, but did not cap Magnolia’s liability to the value of the ship and cargo, which would have been about $1.2 million.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

State lawmakers passed legislation funneling more money into bridge reviews and repairs by the state’s transportation department. The Coast Guard established a working group with American Waterways Operators to investigate instances of barges and towing vessels colliding with bridges. Years after the tragedy, Dedmon’s wife reported that the former tugboat pilot would be forever haunted by the accident.

More From The Banner