Mum’s the word for National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard investigators tasked with figuring out why the Dali, a Manhattan skyscraper-sized ship, lost power and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, causing it to collapse into the Patapsco River.

Their investigations, dual probes, are ongoing — documents have been retrieved, data has been sent for analysis and the ship’s crew interviewed. But authorities have provided no update on what could’ve caused the outage, an event maritime experts have described as extremely rare. It could be weeks until one is offered.

Six construction workers who were filling potholes on the Key Bridge deck died as a result of the allision. A seventh worker was pulled from the water in the immediate aftermath.

An NTSB spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday it would be a few weeks before the safety board’s preliminary incident report is released. A Coast Guard spokesperson, who declined to share their name, wrote in an email that the military branch’s investigation is complementary to the NTSB’s and directed any other questions to the safety board.

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The Coast Guard convened a Marine Board of Investigation, the highest level of scrutiny possible for the branch, into the Dali’s allision. That body has administrative subpoena power, the authority to summon witnesses and can make criminal referrals if it uncovers evidence of misconduct, according to federal law.

Coast Guard officials declined to share who is leading the investigation. The NTSB tapped Marcel Muise to lead its probe. Muise, who has 20 years’ service with the Coast Guard, is an experienced marine investigator and safety expert.

The direction of the investigations is unclear. NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy on March 27 said the agency was still collecting information and would be casting a wide net.

She said then it was “too early to tell” what caused the Dali to lose power. No information has been released since. Officials released a preliminary timeline of events aboard the ship’s bridge in the minutes leading up to it crashing into the bridge.

Sometime around 1:25 a.m. on March 26, alarms began sounding aboard the Dali, according to audio recovered from the ship’s voyage data recorder. That device is similar in function to black boxes aboard airplanes but is far less sophisticated and captures less data.

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The device captured the ship’s pilot radioing a request for tugboats after the ship lost power, but they were too far away to help. Maryland law requires all commercial shipping vessels to have a state-licensed pilot (a navigator) steer while in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The pilot also radioed a distress call, allowing Maryland Department of Transportation Police to close traffic to the Key Bridge before the ship crashed, which saved lives.

The Association of Maryland Pilots has declined to release information about either of its members aboard the Dali at the time. A pilot-in-training was accompanying the pilot that morning, authorities said.

The association, which is regulated by the state, is “prohibited from commenting” on anything relating to the disaster because of the ongoing investigations, a spokesperson for a crisis communications firm representing the group wrote in an email.

There is one known angle of the NTSB investigation. Homendy said on March 27 investigators would collect a fuel sample from the Dali to determine whether poor-quality fuel could have led to the shipwide blackout.

Collecting the sample is standard protocol, but experts have suggested that a phenomenon known as “dirty fuel” — diesel fuel that is too contaminated with silicone or overly watery — can cause a ship to lose power.

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Contaminated fuel can cause a filter to clog and fuel pumps to fail, which would shut down power to the engine. Because generators aboard ships like the Dali often run on the same fuel as the engine, it could cause those to lose power also.

A report from the London P&I Club, a leading insurer of ships globally, found contaminated fuel contributed to a ship losing power within an hour after departing a port in Northern Europe. Ultimately, the report said, the ship’s crew failed to do routine fuel system maintenance and run certain equipment, which led to the blackout.

The majority of fuel-related blackouts do not cause damage. However, they are becoming more common. In 2022, 14 ships experienced engine or power problems after taking on contaminated fuel in Singapore.

Banner investigative reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this story.

Lee O. Sanderlin is an Enterprise Reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Before joining The Banner, he worked at The Baltimore Sun as a reporter covering a wide array of topics, including stories about abusive politicians, sexual abuse, gun violence and legislative issues.

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