When the Francis Scott Key Bridge was struck by a cargo ship and collapsed in March, the discussion of aging infrastructure was soon at the center of media coverage and public discourse. Specifics about how six construction workers died in the accident and even their identities appeared to become secondary.

We would eventually find out that at the time of the accident, communication between the workers and emergency responders was clearly lacking. There was no mechanism to contact the workers quickly for the emergency.

Ryan Dilkey, a search and rescue instructor at Eckerd College in Florida, told Oregon Public Radio that communication systems used to make distress calls are not optimized for alerting construction crews. Crews don’t have access to the same radio as the ship pilots.

He wondered: “Can I see a day where the next road crew will have a VHF marine radio somewhere on the truck, or at least a handheld on somebody’s belt?”

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Up to five minutes elapsed while parts of the bridge were collapsing. No system was in place to warn workers in time.

Media critic David Simon described much of the public reaction to the bridge collapse when he wrote on X: “Thinking first of the people on the bridge, but the mind wanders to a port city strangling. The public appears uninterested in the deaths of workers or preventing a disaster; rather, they want to feel good about rebuilding the bridge.”

Coverage of industrial disasters follows a consistent cycle: The media acknowledges the disaster as a humanitarian crisis, but then government officials congratulate themselves as their focus moves to the hope for rebuilding. As a result, there is little discussion about public policy changes to improve workplace safety and prevent loss of life from another disaster.

As a second-generation immigrant who lived through water restrictions after the East Palestine, Ohio, toxic train derailment and environmental disaster, I believe the media needs to focus more on how immigrant workers and immigrants in communities are disproportionately affected.

The workers who lost their lives in the Key Bridge collapse were from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. While we’ve learned more about their individual stories after their deaths, discussions among public officials or in the media about greater protections for workers like them have been largely nonexistent.

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Selective focus like that on rebuilding the bridge is not an uncommon phenomenon. Susan Moeller, director of the journalism program at Brandeis University, wrote in the Journal of International Affairs that “man-made disasters demand not only humanitarian relief, but also social, political, and even military attention.”

So, the public attention on the collapse of the bridge turned to solutions for such problems as disruptions to the Beltway commute. The deaths of the immigrant workers do not directly affect the public at large, but the loss of the road does.

The voices of workers put at risk of disasters are seldom heard. A CNN investigation found that when workers “report, contractors can retaliate. Plus, these workers are often without the safety net of health care or a union contract.”

Actions by the government or industry to prevent future disasters appear minimal so far. Catherine Thorbecke, a writer for CNN Business, reported in a CNN investigation that in Baltimore, “the ship owner has the potential to significantly cap how much it is liable for in this case.” Under a statute that dates back to 1851, the ship owner’s liability could be limited to how much the Dali was worth.

The government has done little to show it will hold the ship owner accountable for the extent of the loss of life and the damage caused. This means safety will continue to be neglected, which will lead to another disaster.

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The lack of accountability points to an overall disregard for immigrant workers such as those who lost their lives on the Key Bridge. It’s an attitude that stems from negative portrayals by some politicians and some in the media.

Those portrayals include the anti-immigrant rhetoric voiced by former President Donald Trump, which characterizes Central American and South American immigrants as invaders, criminals and drug smugglers. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan kicked off his general election campaign for the U.S. Senate with an ad railing against what he called “open-border” policies. The ad features footage of people crossing the Southern Border and Hogan in military-style attire warning about the threat that immigrants pose. Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo has suggested that the Dali crash was a result of immigrant workers on the ship.

The media has the responsibility to portray immigrant workers more accurately and fairly and to point out failures by government and industry. Improving workplace safety and acting to prevent another disaster should be the goals. Otherwise, tragic deaths such as those of Miguel Luna, Dorlian Cabrera, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, José Mynor López and Carlos Hernandez are likely to happen again.

Andrew Chung is a rising sophomore at Columbia University and is a staff writer and editor for the Columbia Political Review and Columbia Undergraduate Law Review.

The Baltimore Banner welcomes opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Please send submissions to communityvoices@thebaltimorebanner.com or letters@thebaltimorebanner.com.

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