Bridge Collapses in Baltimore and Guangzhou Raise Questions on Modern Shipping

Tuesday’s crash was at least the second in just over a month in which a container ship hit a major road bridge, raising questions about the safety standards of increasingly large ships and the ability of bridges around the world to withstand crashes.

On Feb. 22 in Guangzhou, a port in southern China, a much smaller vessel carrying stacks of containers hit the base of a two-lane bridge, causing vehicles to fall. Officials said that five people were killed.

The crashes have also raised questions about whether more ships should be required to be ready to drop anchors quickly during port emergencies, and whether tugboats should accompany more vessels as they enter and leave harbors.

There has not been a final report on the Guangzhou incident, and investigators have barely begun to look at what happened in Baltimore. But ship collision barriers are standard around the support piers of bridges over major waterways like the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, for example, has massive barriers of concrete and rocks around the bases of the piers that support it.

It was not immediately clear how old the barriers are around the piers that supported the bridge in Baltimore. The bridge was built almost half a century ago and designed before then. Vessels have become considerably larger in that time.

The crash in Guangzhou occurred on a less important waterway, a minor channel of the Pearl River. The bridge there was being fitted with devices designed to protect the piers in case of any ship crash. The work was supposed to have been completed by 2022 but had been delayed, and the latest target for completion was August of this year, according to China Central Television, the state broadcaster.

Harbor pilots and crews of many large ships have two anchors ready to drop as they enter or leave a harbor, in case an emergency such as a loss of power means that they need to try to stop quickly. Basil M. Karatzas, the chief executive of Karatzas Marine Advisors, a ship inspection company in New York, said that while he had seen tanker crews commonly take this precaution, it was less common for container ships.

“The anchors have to be unlocked and ready to be dropped, and this takes some time to prepare, as generally crew members physically at the bow have to unlock them and release them,” he said. “That’s not something you can do in an emergency.”

Large ships are often accompanied by tugboats as they leave or enter harbors so that the tugboats can push them away from harm if the ship has difficulties. It was not immediately clear whether tugboats had accompanied the ship that struck the bridge on Tuesday.

The ship in Baltimore was exiting the harbor as a spring tide was rushing out of the harbor. The moon was still almost completely full, having reached its fullest less than 24 hours earlier.

Full moons in springtime are associated with some of the largest tidal changes in local sea level. And while Baltimore’s harbor experiences fairly small changes even during springtime full moon tides, tidal movements of water could have been a factor in the bridge impact.

“The ebbing tide increases the speed of the water seaward, which effectively has a cumulative effect on the speed of an outbound vessel, and any currents in the water could also have complicated navigation,” Mr. Karatzas said.

Amy Chang Chien contributed research.

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