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Coast Guard suspends Baltimore rescue mission. It's now a recovery operation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What began in the pre-dawn hours yesterday as a rescue mission has now become a recovery mission.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Six people are presumed dead after a cargo ship struck Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge and it collapsed into the Patapsco River. Two survived, and a major east coast transit route and a key shipping port are shut down.

FADEL: NPR's Andrew Limbong is in Baltimore covering this story. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So why did the Coast Guard suspend rescue operations last night?

LIMBONG: Yeah. Well, a couple of reasons. I mean, first, you know, just given the length of time since the bridge collapsed, you know, and secondly, you know, there's the temperature and the changing conditions of the water. It just wouldn't have been safe to continue diving operations, especially considering the forecast called for rain. So now officials say all they can do is recover the bodies, which will still be extremely difficult. Here's Colonel Roland Butler of the Maryland State Police.

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ROLAND BUTLER: If we look at how challenging it is at a simple motor vehicle crash to extract an individual, I'm sure we can all imagine how much harder it is to do it inclement weather when it's cold under the water, with very limited to no visibility.

LIMBONG: And he said he intended to give the families, you know, their best effort to help find as much closure as possible.

FADEL: These families waiting for the bodies of their loved ones. And now, when the bridge collapsed, authorities had already shut it down after the ship's crew sent a mayday signal. But the six people presumed dead were from a construction crew that didn't make it off that bridge. What do we know about them?

LIMBONG: So they were construction workers filling potholes. You know, it was by all means a regular day for them. A man named Jesus Campos spoke with member station WYPR who said these were his coworkers, you know, and he said that these were all Hispanic, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and all of them between 30 and 45 years old. And there's been other reports that they lived in the Dundalk and Highland Town neighborhoods of Baltimore, which are on the east side of the town, pretty close to the base of the bridge. And Maryland Governor Wes Moore said he'd been in touch with the families.

FADEL: And what have we learned so far about the cargo ship?

LIMBONG: It's a Singaporean container ship known as the Dali. It's nearly 1,000 feet long, and officials yesterday said it appears to have lost power right before it crashed into the bridge. The Maryland governor said the crew's mayday signal prevented, you know, who knows how many more deaths by, you know, stopping cars from getting on the bridge. The National Transportation Safety Board chair, Jennifer Homendy, said that they are leading the investigation and have been in touch with Singaporean officials who are on their way to the U.S. to help figure out exactly what happened. I just want to add that at this time, Maryland officials believe, you know, it was an accident. There is no evidence of foul play.

FADEL: Do we know much more about what went wrong on that ship and whether a crash like this should cause a bridge to just collapse like we saw?

LIMBONG: Not really.

FADEL: OK.

LIMBONG: At the press conference yesterday, Homendy said the NTSB couldn't confirm a lot of details, you know, including who exactly was on the ship, who was in the pilot house and what went wrong there. The NTSB is also looking at the bridge itself. Here's Homendy.

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JENNIFER HOMENDY: Part of our investigation will be how was this bridge constructed, it will look at the structure itself, should there be any sort of safety improvements. All that will be part of our investigation.

LIMBONG: I just want to say, like, it might be a bit before we get any answers. Homendy pointed to a bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh in January 2022, and the NTSB pretty much just came out with its final report on that last month.

FADEL: Oh, more than two years later. NPR's Andrew Limbong in Baltimore. Thank you, Andrew.

LIMBONG: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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