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Federal probe into why a cargo ship hit a Baltimore bridge is in its early stages

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

We now have an initial timeline, minute by minute, of how a massive cargo ship came to crash into Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now, this is just the early stages of federal investigators' probe into the collapse of that bridge that crumbled into the Patapsco River. And authorities say they've recovered the bodies of two construction workers. Four more are likely still underwater.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Joel Rose has been following the story and joins us. Good morning.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Federal investigators briefed the media last night. What did they say?

ROSE: Yeah, investigators say they were able to get onto the ship yesterday. The Dali is still stuck in the river, tangled up in the wreckage of the bridge. And the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, says it is a huge investigation scene, and it is a mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER HOMENDY: It's just utter devastation. And when I look at something like that, I am thinking not about the container ships that are coming through, not about traffic getting back up and running on the bridge. I'm thinking about the families who've lost loved ones and what they must be going through.

ROSE: Homendy said there is a visible sheen on the waterway, but that it's being addressed.

We also learned yesterday that some of the containers on the ship have hazardous materials in them - 764 tons, to be precise. These are mostly things like corrosives and flammables, Homendy said - also, lithium-ion batteries. Homendy said some of these containers had been breached in the ship. But I also want to note Coast Guard officials addressed this earlier in the day, and they said they are not aware of any release of hazardous materials and that there is currently no threat to the public.

ELLIOTT: That's good. Now, investigators were able to share a timeline of what happened after the ship left port. What led up to the collision?

ROSE: Yeah. Investigators said that at about 1:24 a.m., there were numerous audible alarms on the ship. About two minutes later, at 1:26, the ship's pilot asked for help for the first time, requesting tugboat assistance. A minute after that, the pilot called for the ship to drop one of its anchors, the port anchor, in an attempt to slow down, but it was just too late. The ship struck the bridge around 1:29 a.m., so, you know, all of this happening in a matter of just a few minutes - about five minutes.

ELLIOTT: Joel, did investigators say anything about the ship's voyage data recorder, which tracks the sensors and systems on board?

ROSE: Yeah, they say they have it and that so far they've reviewed about six hours of audio and data from the night of the incident. But investigators said that this recorder is not as sophisticated as you would find in the black box on a plane, for example. It does not capture as much data as they would like, so investigators are going to have to rely on other sources of information, including interviews with the crew. Those have already begun. And interviews with the pilots, whose job it is to guide the ship out of port, are set for today. So, you know, bottom line is it's very early. It could be weeks or months before investigators can determine what happened and why the ship seemed to lose power.

ELLIOTT: Finally, authorities in Maryland say they found the bodies of two men who had been missing since the accident. Do you have any more information about them?

ROSE: Yeah. These are the bodies of two of the six construction workers who were fixing potholes on the bridge when it collapsed. Police in Maryland say that the men were found inside a red pickup truck submerged in about 25 feet of water. Authorities believe that there are other vehicles with victims inside that are still trapped under wreckage from the collapsed bridge. All of the deceased were construction workers, and all of them hailed from Mexico or Central America.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's transportation correspondent Joel Rose. Thank you so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. 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.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.