How a Graveyard Shift on Baltimore Bridge Turned Deadly

Family members spent the day hoping for a miracle. KENT NISHIMURA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Family members spent the day hoping for a miracle. KENT NISHIMURA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

Six people from a crew of Latino immigrants are presumed dead after the Francis Scott Key Bridge was hit by a cargo ship and collapsed.

BALTIMORE—The crew of workers from Mexico and Central America were well into their graveyard shift, pouring concrete to fix the potholes that dotted the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The job could be dangerous in the daytime, let alone at night. The bridge, suspended up to 185 feet above the Patapsco River, would sway with passing tractor-trailers. But the men needed to work. And Brawner Builders, the Maryland-based construction company that employed them, always seemed to have plenty of it.

“They’re fathers with families. They’re people who came to earn their bread each day," said Jesus Campos, who had worked on the bridge but wasn’t on shift Monday night.

Through the darkness just before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the lights of a nearby 1,000-foot container cargo ship flickered on and off. The Dali was less than half an hour into a 27-day journey to Sri Lanka under the direction of a pair of local harbor pilots when it lost power and went completely dead, according to an officer onboard.

As it approached the 1.6-mile-long steel bridge, the ship didn’t slow down. The bridge workers didn’t know it, but the Dali’s crew didn’t have time to drop anchor and had issued a mayday call.

Officials stopped vehicles from driving onto the bridge, but weren’t able to evacuate the maintenance workers before the Dali plowed headlong into a pillar near where the repair crew was stationed. Almost instantly the bridge crumpled. Eight men fell into the Patapsco.

Two were rescued. The other six are presumed dead, the Coast Guard said Tuesday night. Some 50 divers who spent the day frantically trying to find them in murky water as deep as 100 feet, amid sunken masses of unstable steel from the bridge, called off their search. They planned to resume their search Wednesday morning at 6 a.m., this time looking for bodies.

Just before government officials briefed the public, around 40 family members were notified in a state transportation department building nearby. The Red Cross brought donated food from a local seafood restaurant. Some relatives left the building in tears. Others were mad.

“Why did we come here? For nothing. There’s no information," Carlos Suazo, whose brother Maynor is among those presumed dead, said while smoking a cigarette. “The U.S. is going to rebuild that bridge one day [and] what we don’t want is for the bodies to stay there. We want them to be recovered."

Maynor, 37, was the youngest of eight children from a family in Honduras and came to the U.S. around 2003. Carlos described his younger brother as chatty and jovial, the type of person who loved to throw parties and always had a full house at Christmas. Maynor started working for Brawner in October. The last time the two brothers saw each other was Sunday.

“For my mom, I think this is the worst information she has ever received," Carlos said while showing a photo of another brother in Honduras consoling their mother. “Maynor was her baby, the spoiled one."

Many family members spent the day Tuesday hoping for a miracle. Carmen Luna last spoke to her husband Miguel just before 10 p.m. Monday night, letting him know she was home from her shift cooking inside a Salvadoran food truck. He was starting his own shift on the Francis Scott Key Bridge for Brawner, where he had been employed for 14 years.

Around 3 a.m. Tuesday, Carmen Luna was woken by a phone call. It was someone from Brawner. The person told her that the bridge had collapsed and her husband had fallen into the water with it. She and the couple’s six children waited all day for news.

“The only thing we want is for them to be found and to come home with us," she said Tuesday afternoon, before officials announced the missing workers were presumed dead.

One of the two rescued workers, a Mexican national named Julio, was hospitalized for injuries including a broken leg, according to Campos. Standing in the parking lot of a gas station Tuesday not far from the scene, with his 16-year-old son translating, Campos said he had recently been briefed on Julio’s situation by his boss.

He and several co-workers spent much of Tuesday calling their missing colleagues, he said. But none of them answered.

Religious and political leaders gathered with local residents Tuesday evening at a church in Dundalk, a community close to the harbor where many Latino immigrants who work manual labor jobs, including road work, live.

A Catholic priest, Father Ako Walker, delivered a prayer in Spanish. “In solidarity," he said, “with those affected, especially the six who are missing at this time."

Walker said he’d spoken earlier in the day with the families. In an interview following his remarks at the vigil, he said, “You can see the pain etched on their faces."

By Tuesday night though, not everyone affected had begun to feel the pain. Carlos Suazo said Maynor’s 5-year-old daughter, Alexa, didn’t yet know what had happened to her father.

“She was glued to her dad. Her dad was everything to her," Carlos Suazo said. “They haven’t told her anything. Just that her dad hasn’t arrived."

Alyssa Lukpat contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Kiernan at paul.kiernan@wsj.com, C. Ryan Barber at ryan.barber@wsj.com, Dan Frosch at dan.frosch@wsj.com and Cameron McWhirter at Cameron.McWhirter@wsj.com

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