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Rare simulator mimics Key Bridge collapse. Could tragedy have been prevented?

Rare simulator reveals if Key Bridge collapse could have been prevented
Rare simulator reveals if Key Bridge collapse could have been prevented 03:19

BALTIMORE -- A simulator is giving investigators a closer look at what happened last month when the Dali crashed into the Key Bridge, causing it to collapse and killing six construction workers.

This simulator modeled the exact conditions during the bridge collapse to determine whether it could have been prevented. 

WJZ got a rare look at the simulator at California State University's Maritime Academy — one of only three in the United States —where researchers input the exact conditions at the time of the Key Bridge collapse.

They found that, with a ship that large, with no power, little could have been done to stop the tragedy.

"Unfortunately, all of the factors that went wrong, or could go wrong did go wrong, and that essentially all happened at the worst time that it could have," said Kevin Calnan, Assistant Professor of Marine Transportation at Cal Maritime. "We could compare it to the perfect storm of accidents where everything that could go wrong did go wrong at exactly where we would not want it to go wrong." 

Cal Maritime's simulator found containers acted as sails with winds pushing the Dali directly toward the Key Bridge.

"Just to get that ship from a speed of 8 knots forward, it took us about 1 nautical mile—that's 6,076 feet—just to get that ship to be dead in the water with zero speed," Calnan said. 

"Human errors can also be simulated such as delayed reactions, incorrect commands or miscommunication," said Cal Maritime's Senior Director of Academic Technology Dr. Jase Teoh. "Tide, currents and weather conditions mimic the situation as closely as possible."

The simulator also found one of the few scenarios that could have prevented the disaster was two tugboats at full power pulling the Dali away from the bridge, which is something that would not have been common practice. 

"It would have taken two very powerful tugs to be able to slow that ship down from a speed of 8 knots to dead in the water," Calnan said. "These ships are incredibly difficult to slow down and it takes quite a bit of time, and that's if our propulsion plant is online." 

Simulators like this one can be a powerful tool and show that without power, there was little the crew could do but warn of an impending disaster. 

"As horrific as that was, we have a lot of lessons we can learn and a lot of changes we can implement on behalf of the unfortunate accident that did occur," Calnan said.

NTSB report could be released soon

Twenty-one members and two pilots were onboard DALI, a 948-foot vessel managed by Synergy Marine Group, a Singapore-based company. The vessel was carrying 764 tons of hazardous materials.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release its initial findings in the next few days.

Next step: Removing the Dali

The 35-foot deep emergency channel —the deepest allowing access around the Key Bridge disaster site so far—has closed until May 10, while Unified Command crews refloat the Dali.

The ship is one of the biggest obstacles to fully reopening access to the Port of Baltimore.

Crews will use a massive hydraulic grabber to pick up the remaining bridge pieces from the bottom of the Patapsco River after the ship has been removed.

FBI investigating the Dali

The FBI has opened a criminal investigation.

There were possible electrical problems before the Dali left port, according to an Associated Press source

Alarms were going off on some of the refrigerated containers, possibly indicating an inconsistent power supply. Yet, the Dali left on its journey anyway. 

The NTSB is focusing on electrical systems and considering possible dirty fuel as their investigators work to determine the cause. 

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