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FBI opens criminal investigation into Baltimore bridge collapse

Federal agents boarded the ship that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge with search warrants, according to two senior law enforcement sources.
/ Source: TODAY

The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the container ship that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore in March, two senior law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation confirmed to NBC News.

The investigation is reviewing the events leading up to when the ship left the port, and a portion of the inquiry is investigating whether the crew had any prior knowledge that the ship had potential mechanical problems which could make it unsafe in the harbor, the sources said.

Six people were presumed dead after the crash.

Federal agents boarded the ship the morning of April 15 with search warrants. FBI agents collected physical evidence and data from inside the vessel relating to the moments before, during and after the impact, the sources said.

"The FBI is present aboard the cargo ship Dali conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity," the FBI said in a statement to NBC News on April 15.

The reported criminal investigation comes over two weeks after Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a press conference March 27 that investigators were able to board the 985-foot ship that struck the bridge and start initial interviews with some of the crew members.

"It’s just utter devastation," Homendy said of the cargo ship, which was still covered in mangled metal from the bridge.

Homendy confirmed to NBC News earlier on March 27 that the NTSB had recovered the ship’s voyage data recorder, which would play a vital role in the board’s investigation.

The initial timeline showed alarms sounding on the ship around 1:24 a.m., and the pilot making an urgent call for any tugboats nearby to assist two minutes later. The pilot radioed again one minute later, saying the ship had lost all power until it struck the bridge two minutes after.

Police dispatch audio showed officers radioed to stop traffic on the bridge less than 30 seconds after the distress call and also discussed the construction crew on the bridge moments before it collapsed.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore described how one of the two survivors of the collapse was able to walk away from the bridge before the cargo ship collided with it during a March 27 press conference.

"As he was moving off of the bridge, (he) literally saw the bridge fall right after he moved off," Moore said. "It was because it was a first responder, who was telling him to move off the bridge."

Maryland governor says he's committed to helping families of victims find 'closure'

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said on TODAY on March 27 he had met with the families of the six victims of the collapse, who were part of a construction crew working on potholes on the bridge.

"The commitment that I made to the families was that we would put every possible resource towards a search and rescue mission," Moore said. "But now that we transition to a recovery mission, I'm going to make sure that we're gonna put every possible resource to bring a sense of closure to these families."

Moore said "early indications" showed authorities were able to notify the construction workers of the incoming container ship, a 985-foot vessel called Dali registered under a Singaporean flag, and that officials were able to stop traffic from crossing the bridge shortly before the ship collided with it.

"These first responders who moved to both alert people who were there on the bridge, and then also be able to stop the traffic flow — this was true heroism," Moore said. "When we say that that we are we are Maryland tough, and we are Baltimore strong ... that exemplifies that with these first responders."

He added: "The fact that they were able to get cars off of the bridge and move cars off of the bridge — they saved countless lives that night. And so we're incredibly thankful for the work that they did." 

On March 26, officials said a mayday call was issued before a container ship struck a pillar of the bridge — a decision Moore said "saved lives" during a press conference ahead of the bridge's collapse.

The crew on the vessel were able to notify authorities of a power issue and that they had lost power on the ship, which alerted officials who were able to stop some vehicles from crossing the bridge before the ship collided with it, Moore said.

“Once notification came up that there was a mayday, literally by being able to stop cars from coming over the bridge,” Moore said during the press conference. “These people are heroes. They saved lives."

The ship was traveling at about 8 knots, which Moore described as “a very rapid speed.”

Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse
A helicopter flies over a container ship as it rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Pasadena, Maryland.Mark Schiefelbein / AP

Moore said on TODAY that authorities are investigating what led to the container ship's power outage ahead of the collision, as well as what happened in the aftermath.

The Wall Street Journal reported investigators are looking into whether contaminated fuel, among other leads, played a role in the ship losing control, citing people familiar with the matter.

The Port of Baltimore, a major shipping hub for the country, was shut down indefinitely in the wake of the collapse.

"The economic consequences, they cannot be overstated. And not just for the state of Maryland — we're talking about what this means for the entire country," Moore said. "We're talking about a port that brings on more cars, more trucks, more agricultural equipment than any other port in this country."

The governor said that because the Port of Baltimore is one of the largest ports for international cargo, with "over 51 million tons of foreign cargo" coming through it, its closure "is going to have enormous economic impacts."

"And it's the reason that we're so focused on making sure we get this done right, and get it on quickly to be able to restore this bridge," he said.

When asked about a specific timeline to rebuild the bridge, Moore did not offer specifics but stressed it would be "a complicated effort" due to the "mangled metal underwater."

"This is going to be complicated, it is going to be long and we know that we are going to need the support of everybody on board to be able to get it to completion," he said. "But we are going to get this done."

A recovery mission turned into a salvage operation

Emergency personnel had rescued two people on March 26, one in good condition and who refused treatment, while the second was seriously injured and received treatment in a local trauma center, Baltimore Fire Chief James Wallace said during a press conference.

On the evening of March 26, Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders, told NBC News in a phone interview that six of its workers were presumed dead, and officials later confirmed the search and rescue would be transitioned to a recovery mission.

Four bodies have been recovered from the water under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and six people are believed to be dead as a result of the incident.

The fourth body, located on April 15, was found trapped inside a construction vehicle. The person’s identity was not released at the request of the family, according to the unified command group in charge of recovery.

On April 5, officials announced that dive teams had found a third body, that of 38-year-old Maynor Yasir Suazo-Sandoval.

According to a statement from the unified command in charge of recovery — a cooperative of first responders and investigators from federal, state and local agencies — Suazo-Sandoval was a construction worker and was found at the site of the collapse.

Dive teams previously pulled two bodies from the water on March 27: Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, who was from Mexico and lived in Baltimore, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, who was from Guatemala and lived in Dundalk, Maryland, according to officials. Authorities found them inside a red pickup truck about 25 feet under the water’s surface.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation Paul Wiedefeld said a crew was working on repairing potholes on the bridge around the time of the collision, and that the repairs didn’t have to do with the structural integrity of the bridge.

The bridge was "fully up to code" at the time of the incident, Moore said, adding authorities were still investigating the cause of the impact and collapse. The incident appeared to be an accident and there were no signs of terrorism, Moore said.

"To hear the words that the Key Bridge has collapsed, it's shocking and heartbreaking," Moore said.

"For every single one of us who are Marylanders, the words that the Key Bridge is gone — it still shakes us because for over for 47 years, that's all we've known," he added.

Dramatic video of the incident showed smoke coming from the ship as it collided with a pillar supporting the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which carries Interstate 695 over the Patapsco River south of Baltimore, and a livestream video showed vehicles crossing the bridge just before impact.

Baltimore executive says Key Bridge collapse is 'an absolute tragedy'

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski called the collapse an "absolute tragedy" and "shock" on TODAY around 7:05 a.m., and said the bridge has been an active scene of activity for emergency responders and other city and state agencies since the bridge collapsed.

"Our primary efforts are around search and rescue right now," Olszewski said. "We have the sun coming up so we can start having our dive teams go in. We're not just doing the surface searches, but we are actively on this scene."

Ship monitoring website MarineTraffic showed a Singapore-flagged container ship called the Dali stopped under the bridge.
The steel frame of a portion of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of a container ship after it struck the bridge in Baltimore on March 26, 2024.Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images

Underwater drones showed there were vehicles in the river, Wallace said, but authorities said Tuesday that they do not believe anyone was inside those vehicles.

"The best information we have is that the ship, for whatever reason, whether it's power, or other reason, lost control, ran into the supporting beam of the bridge, which unfortunately caused it to collapse," Olszewski said on TODAY.

There is an active investigation into the cause of the collapse, in addition to the active search and rescue for survivors, Olszewski said.

"We know those answers will come forward, but it's an absolute tragedy," he said. "Our efforts are focused on the search and rescue right now as we try to determine both next steps for traffic for commerce, but really right now our hearts go out to and our thoughts and prayers are with those individuals and families who were affected by this collapse."

When did the ship hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge?

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement to NBC News it received a report that a "motor vessel made impact with the bridge" around 1:27 a.m. ET, and confirmed the ship was a vessel named Dali registered under a Singaporean flag.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge lies in the water, following an impact from a cargo ship.
The Dali vessel after it struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge.Baltimore City Fire Department / Rescue 1

Shipping company Maersk said in a statement to NBC News Dali was operated by another company, Synergy Group, which it had charted to transport its customers' cargo.

"We are horrified by what has happened in Baltimore, and our thoughts are with all of those affected," a spokesperson for Maersk said.

NTSB Chair Homendy said during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon the NTSB was leading the investigation into the 985-foot vessel's collision with the bridge, and the Coast Guard would provide support.

"Before I go on, on behalf of the NTSB, I want to extend our deepest sympathies to those who have been affected by this significant event," Homendy said. "A search and rescue is still underway, so we are very hopeful. And again our thoughts are with the families and their loved ones."

Biden says he’s directing his team ‘to move heaven and Earth’ to reopen port, rebuild bridge

President Joe Biden addressed reporters on the day of the “terrible incident” in Baltimore. Biden, who previously represented Delaware for 36 years in the Senate, began by saying he had been over the Key Bridge “many, many times” before.

Biden said at the time that he plans to send “all the federal resources” to help.

“We’re going to rebuild that port together,” he added.

He explained that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is there now and that he has directed his team to “move heaven and Earth” so that the port can reopen and the bridge can be rebuilt. Biden also said he expects Congress to support his effort.

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge,” he said.

A reporter later asked about the federal government paying despite the ship appearing to be at fault and if the company behind the ship should be responsible.

“That could be, but we’re not going to wait for that to happen,” Biden answered.

“We’re going to pay for it to get the bridge rebuilt and open.”

The president toured the site on April 5 and was briefed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.

He described the six dead workers as “hard-working, strong, and selfless.”

“To all the families and loved ones who are grieving,” he said, “I’ve come here to grieve with you. We all are.”