Shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday morning, the crew of the Dali, a cargo ship bound for Sri Lanka, issued a mayday call warning authorities that the vessel had lost power. Minutes later, the Dali struck Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, sending the 47-year-old structure plunging into the Patapsco River.

Officials believe that eight people assigned to a construction crew on the bridge fell into the water. Rescuers found two of the victims, one of whom was unharmed and the other of whom is in serious condition, but six remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead. Thanks to the Dali’s distress signal, first responders were able to stop traffic from crossing the bridge in the moments before the crash, minimizing the number of potential casualties.

“These people are heroes,” said Maryland Governor Wes Moore during a press conference on Tuesday. “They saved lives.”

Moment bridge collapses in Baltimore after cargo ship collision

Footage of the disaster shows the ship hitting a support pillar before bursting into flames as the bridge crumbles around it. (None of the Dali’s 24 crew members were injured.) The event unfolded in seconds, with the crash triggering a progressive collapse in which “the failure of one structural element leads to the failure of neighboring elements, which can’t support the new loads placed on them,” says Andrew Barr, an engineer at the University of Sheffield in England, in a statement from the Science Media Center.

The structure was a continuous truss bridge, meaning it consisted of a long steel truss (a group of connected elements that often form triangular units) over three main spans, or sections between structural supports. Though the bridge’s builders likely implemented safeguards against structural failure, the Dali’s sheer size and power quickly overwhelmed these measures.

The 1977 bridge “may not have been equipped to handle the scale of ship movements seen today,” says Toby Mottram, an emeritus engineer at England’s University of Warwick, in the statement. “However, modern navigation technologies should have prevented the ship from striking the pier.”

As authorities begin investigating the crash’s cause and assessing the economic fallout, much remains unknown. But while the disaster is undoubtedly catastrophic, it isn’t unprecedented: Between 1960 and 2015, 35 major bridges around the world collapsed due to ship or barge accidents, killing a collective 342 people, a 2018 study found. Going back even further, examples of bridge failures abound, with culprits ranging from design flaws to extreme weather to human error. Below, learn about seven of the worst bridge disasters in history, listed chronologically.

Eitaibashi Bridge, Japan, 1807

A woodblock print of the Eitaibashi Bridge
A woodblock print of the Eitaibashi Bridge British Museum

Built in the late 17th century, the wooden Eitaibashi Bridge stood over the Sumidagawa River in Edo (now Tokyo), nearly 330 feet upstream of the steel bridge that now shares its name. In 1807, crowds flocking to a local festival used the bridge, which “broke down under the weight of the crush of people crossing it to see the dazzling spectacular floats and other attractions,” according to a 1957 travel guide. As many as 1,400 people died in the disaster.

The bridge was eventually rebuilt, but this replacement fared no better than its predecessor: In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, killing more than 140,000 people and sparking fires that destroyed large swaths of the city. Eitaibashi was among the structures razed by the natural disaster.

Ponte das Barcas, Portugal, 1809

Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult surveys the broken bridge as Porto falls to the French on March 29, 1809.
Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult surveys the broken bridge as Porto falls to the French on March 29, 1809. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On March 29, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte’s French forces invaded the Portuguese city of Porto. Panicked locals tried to escape by crossing the Ponte das Barcas, a pontoon bridge crafted in 1806 out of 20 boats connected by steel cables.

People “old and young, and of both sexes, were seen pressing forward with wild tumult, some already on the bridge, others striving to gain it, and all in a state of frenzy,” wrote historian W.F.P. Napier in 1838. Overloaded with civilians and Portuguese troops alike, the bridge collapsed, sending thousands tumbling into the Douro River. The exact death toll is unknown, but some contemporary scholars believe the oft-cited figure of 4,000 is exaggerated.

Dixon Bridge Disaster, Illinois, 1873

View of the Dixon Bridge following the collapse
View of the Dixon Bridge following the collapse Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After a series of wooden bridges spanning Illinois’ Rock River proved unable to withstand the elements, locals eagerly embraced plans for a new iron bridge. In 1868, Dixon City Council decided to move forward with Lucius E. Truesdell’s design, ignoring the city engineer’s warnings that the proposal was seriously flawed. The bridge opened the following January, just a few weeks after a separate bridge designed by Truesdell collapsed in nearby Elgin, albeit with no loss of life.

Four years later, on May 4, 1873, tragedy struck during a riverside baptism organized by the Reverend J.H. Pratt. Per the Chicago Tribune, the third initiate of the day had just stepped forward to be baptized when a sudden “crash and a despairing shriek smote all hearts with dismay.” The bridge had broken apart without warning, sending most of the 200 people and 6 horses standing on it into the Rock River. “They fell from a height of about 18 feet,” the Tribune reported. “Some sank to rise no more. Some were killed before they touched the water. Some were entangled in the debris. Some jumped from the bridge to the river, and swam ashore.”

Many victims found themselves entangled in the bridge’s iron components. “You could look down and see their faces. They couldn’t get to the surface because all that iron was on top of them,” Tom Wadsworth, an expert on the disaster, told the Associated Press in 2023. “It’s frightening to look down, but to look up and to see daylight, to be only 12 inches from air?”

The collapse killed 46 people and injured another 56. Ultimately, Scientific American concluded that the Truesdell bridge’s “theory of construction was wrong, and the material poor and clearly inadequate.”

Quebec Bridge, Canada, 1907 and 1916

The Quebec Bridge after its second collapse in September 1916
The Quebec Bridge after its second collapse in September 1916 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Canada’s Quebec Bridge holds the unwelcome distinction of collapsing not just once but twice before it even opened to the public. Construction of the cantilever bridge, which was slated to be the longest of its kind in the world, began in 1900. Prior to the first accident, workers noticed distortions in key components of the bridge’s structure, but these issues weren’t deemed serious enough to stop construction. Then, on the afternoon of August 30, 1907, a section of the bridge collapsed, narrowly avoiding striking a steamer that had just passed under.

“The end of the half arch bent down a trifle, and a moment later, the whole enormous fabric began to give way, slowly at first, then with a terrible crash which was plainly heard in Quebec, and which shook the whole countryside so that the inhabitants rushed out of their houses, thinking that an earthquake had occurred,” the New York Times reported. Of the 86 workers on the bridge at the time of the accident, only 11 survived. An inquiry later assigned blame to the bridge’s engineers.

Following the disaster, the government took over the project, commissioning a total redesign of the bridge. This time, the collapse took place toward the end of construction, when workers were lifting the central span into place in front of a crowd of tens of thousands on September 11, 1916. The lifting apparatus failed, killing 13 people. The bridge finally opened to traffic in 1917 and remains in use today.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, 1940

Tacoma Bridge Collapse: The Wobbliest Bridge in the World? (1940) | British Pathé

Nicknamed “Galloping Gertie” for its tendency to “bounce” vertically on windy days, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed on November 7, 1940, after just four months in operation. That morning, as winds reached upwards of 40 miles per hour, the suspension bridge began exhibiting a “lateral twisting motion,” tilting up to 28 feet at an angle of up to 45 degrees, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Shortly before noon, the AP reported, “the giant structure’s two 1,000-foot approaches on either end began to give way, cracked up in small pieces and fell away.” Local journalist Leonard Coatsworth was the last person on the bridge, the AP noted, escaping by climbing out of an open window in his car and crawling 1,500 feet on his hands and knees. Coatsworth’s three-legged cocker spaniel, Tubby, was the disaster’s only casualty: Though a bystander tried to grab the dog from the reporter’s car, the frightened pup nipped at his hand, leading the would-be rescuer to abandon his efforts. The bridge collapsed moments later.

Silver Bridge, West Virginia and Ohio, 1967

An aerial photo of the Silver Bridge following its collapse in December 1967
An aerial photo of the Silver Bridge following its collapse in December 1967 Bettmann via Getty Images

The deadliest bridge collapse in modern history led the United States to introduce sweeping new safety measures. The bridge that sparked this change opened over the Ohio River in 1928, connecting the states of West Virginia and Ohio. An eyebar-chain suspension bridge, the structure was officially called the Point Pleasant Bridge, but it was widely known as the Silver Bridge due to its aluminum coloring.

Around 5 p.m. on December 15, 1967, the bridge “keeled over, starting slowly on the Ohio side, then folding like a deck of cards to the West Virginia side,” an eyewitness told the AP. Thirty-two vehicles plunged into the water, and 46 people died. Investigators later determined that a minute crack in one of the bridge’s eyebars (straight metal bars with a hole, or “eye,” at either end) caused the collapse. All but undetectable to the naked eye, the fracture only could have been fixed by disassembling the eyebar joint—“a practical impossibility,” according to the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

In August 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an act calling on the secretary of transportation to develop national bridge inspection standards in accordance with state highway departments. The first list of standards was published in 1971.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Florida, 1980

1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge crash, collapse

Of the disasters included in this list, the clearest parallel to the Francis Scott Key Bridge is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida. On May 9, 1980, the M.V. Summit Venture freighter struck a support beam in the bridge during a severe thunderstorm, sending a 1,200-foot section of the roadway tumbling into Tampa Bay. Six cars, a truck and a Greyhound bus fell into the water, and 35 people died.

Bruce Atkins, a member of the freighter’s crew, later told NPR that the storm came out of nowhere. “It became a blinding, driving rain, wind,” he recalled. “And what we were not aware of at the time—the wind had turned in direction.” Investigators later cleared the freighter’s harbor pilot, John Lerro, of any wrongdoing, noting that “his only choice was navigating blindly through the existing weather.”

A replacement bridge opened over Tampa Bay in 1987. To prevent future tragedies, engineers increased the structure’s height and widened the channel beneath it. Officials also placed concrete islands known as bumpers in the waters surrounding the bridge. Designed to withstand nearly 30 million pounds of force—two-thirds more than the Summit Venture’s impact on the bridge—the bumpers help protect the bridge by diverting wayward vessels.

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