The bridge and the ‘behemoth’

The Baltimore disaster raises questions over the safety of ageing infrastructure

By Harris Pozderovic

Within 45 minutes of leaving Baltimore’s docks in the early morning of March 26, the container ship MV Dali came to an unintended, costly and lethal halt.

Moments after reporting a “total blackout” of power, the 300-metre vessel crashed directly into the fourth pier of the steel-arching Francis Scott Key Bridge. Cameras caught the dramatic incident, which caused most of the 2.6-kilometre bridge to plunge into the water, killing six workers.

Nearly three months after the event, the insured losses continue to be counted. However, industry observers expect it will produce the costliest claims in marine insurance history, with costs potentially reaching as high as $US4 billion.

The disaster is not expected to overwhelm insurers – Chubb and Munich Re are among those with exposures – but it adds to growing strains on the marine industry, including supply chain constraints caused by merchant vessel attacks in the Red Sea and drought limiting access to the Panama Canal.

Allianz Commercial’s global head of risk consulting Captain Rahul Khanna tells Insurance News it is “too early for a direct estimate” but it is a “very complicated loss” for protection and indemnity groups and reinsurers. He says insurance costs will spread across several “areas of interest”, including hull damage to the Dali, cargo insurance, property damage to port infrastructure, wreck removal and pollution control, and any liabilities for third-party injuries and deaths.

The costs could be compounded after the City of Baltimore filed a negligence lawsuit against the ship’s managers, Singapore-based Synergy Marine Group.

“This is a big loss, but we are also talking about a big market, with global marine insurance premiums of around $US36 billion in 2022,” Captain Khanna says.

Business interruption costs will also come into play. The collapse shut off access to the nearby shipping port, which handled more than $US80 billion of cargo last year – most notably agriculture and manufacturing products.

Authorities partially reopened the port in April and anticipate having more areas opened after the Dali is moved. Still, the city will continue to face economic pressures as it recovers, with the cost to rebuild the bridge estimated to be between $US1.7 billion and $US1.9 billion and not expected to be completed until 2028.

Industry observers expect the bridge collapse, in which six people died, will be the costliest event in marine insurance history. Credit: Maryland National Guard

Captain Khanna says incidents of this magnitude are rare, with 35 major bridge collapses involving ships or barges recorded between 1960 and 2015.

He says the damage from incidents involving ships “varies from minor to significant but does not necessarily result in collapse of the structure or loss of life”.

“There were more than 1900 reported incidents of vessels hitting port infrastructure over the past decade around the world, making it the fourth most frequent cause of close to 28,000 shipping incidents reported during this period.

“Less than 200 of these involved container ships, such as the Dali … total losses of vessels following collisions with other vessels and contact with port infrastructure are also rare.”

However, Captain Khanna says navigating container ships across restricted water such as ports requires “careful consideration”.

“Larger ships on our seas are not resulting in a higher frequency of accidents, but when something does go wrong, the scale of the damage is likely to be much more severe because of their size and the fact that surrounding civil infrastructure did not anticipate such behemoths.”

For other experts, the Dali incident highlights a growing concern about whether infrastructure protections can cope with more powerful and larger modern vessels. Chartered structural engineer and Monash University associate professor Colin Caprani tells Insurance News that as shipping engineering advances, infrastructure risk assessments need to keep pace.

“What seems to be happening with these older structures is that the probability of an event is increasing, and the consequences of events are worsening,” Professor Caprani says. “This is a good example of how, with the changing profile of the vessels transiting that waterway, the probability of something going wrong has increased.

“So a risk that was acceptable when [the bridge] was built, over time, can slowly become unacceptable, even though nothing has changed the structure itself.”

“The overarching lesson, which shouldn’t require an event like this, is that in a dynamic world, we cannot cater to a static risk assessment from decades ago.”
Engineering expert Colin Caprani

He says there are effective ways to reinforce bridges, pointing to a $US93 million project in the neighbouring state of Delaware to install eight compressed stone cylinders, also known as dolphins, that will serve as barriers around its Memorial Bridge.

Professor Caprani says man-made artificial islands around bridge piers can be another powerful buffer.

“When you [build artificial islands], the ships cannot get to the bridge pier, so you have mitigated the possibility of collapse from a ship impact,” he says. “The construction of artificial islands in deep water is extremely expensive, so you need to look at other solutions: dolphins and fenders are some of those.”

Fenders, located around a bridge’s piers, typically protect against smaller ships that may pass dolphins.

“Both dolphins and fenders were on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but they just weren’t adequate for the size of the vessel,” Professor Caprani says.

The Dali missed a dolphin because of the “unfortunate geometry of the navigation channel”.

He says the main takeaway for governments and other relevant stakeholders, including insurers, should be to make use of the “wide range of impact protection measures at our disposal”.

“The overarching lesson, which shouldn’t require an event like this, is that in a dynamic world, we cannot cater to a static risk assessment from decades ago,” Professor Caprani says. “We have to continually re-evaluate the risks and, unfortunately, that takes resources. Resources that decision-makers reserve; they prefer to spend on new things rather than maintaining existing things.

“Unfortunately, that leads to these kinds of situations where prior protection measures on the Francis Scott Key Bridge were clearly insufficient for the event that transpired.”

An Australian parallel: the Tasman Bridge collapse

The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse mirrors a similar incident in 1975 when a bulk carrier veered off course and crashed into several pylons on Hobart’s Tasman Bridge, causing 12 deaths.

The bridge reopened two years later, with the reconstruction costing more than $44 million. But the impact extended far beyond the infrastructure loss, because it effectively isolated the city’s two sides, causing economic constraints, social divisions and a lasting psychological effect on locals.

“The Tasman Bridge collapse in Hobart … was enormously impactful on how Hobart operated until that was fixed,” Professor Caprani says.

“Even still, people from that experience are worried about when a large ship transits that bridge, so they close it to allow it to cross over as a mitigation measure. I know that before this [Baltimore] event that was a source of frustration; maybe people are now seeing that as a prudent measure.”