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Francis Scott Key Bridge (1977-2024) (Baltimore, MD)

The Francis Scott Key Bridge (1977-2024) was a steel continuous truss bridge that spanned the Patapsco River in Baltimore, MD. Situated at the entrance to Baltimore’s Outer Harbor, the bridge carried Interstate 695 (part of the Baltimore Beltway) and was a visible symbol of the city and the state of Maryland.

This bridge no longer exists due to its collapse as the result of a collision with a large container ship on March 26, 2024. The following piece will discuss the history and life of the Key Bridge, the important details surrounding the incident that caused its collapse, and the in-progress recovery efforts at the site. This piece will also discuss the economic impacts to the city and region as a result of the collapse and will look ahead at what to expect from a potential replacement crossing in the future.

Part 1 - History of the Francis Scott Key Bridge (1977-2024)

Planning for what was originally known as the “Baltimore Outer Harbor Crossing” began in the 1950s at the dawn of the interstate highway era, a period when the freeway system of greater Baltimore was first being proposed and discussed. The success of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, opened in 1957 and today a part of the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), led to the need for additional harbor crossings in the area of downtown Baltimore and the Outer Harbor area. While plans for a crossing in the vicinity of Fort McHenry sat stalled for many years (eventually completed in 1985 as the Fort McHenry Tunnel), state officials pursued the idea of a third crossing in the vicinity of Hawkins Point and Sollers Point on the lower Patapsco River, across from the sprawling Sparrows Point industrial area. This location would also serve as the final link in the proposed Baltimore Beltway, a 50-mile ring road encircling Baltimore City and most of the inner suburbs, most of which was also planned for inclusion in the federal interstate highway program. (The segment of the Beltway east of Interstate 95 was not originally part of the interstate system.)

Initial plans called for a four lane tunnel at this location, across from Fort Armistead Park and a short distance northwest of Fort Carroll. Rising construction costs and the need to divert state funding elsewhere, particularly to the in-development parallel span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, forced the project to be scaled back to a single two-lane tunnel. In spite of this downgrade, provisions were still made for the construction of a parallel tube at the site in the future.

In the summer of 1970, as construction was beginning on the approach highways on both sides of the harbor, the Maryland State Roads Commission (the precursor agency to today’s Maryland State Highway Administration) entertained bids for the two-lane tunnel project. Even with the reduced scope of the tunnel project, the lowest bids were still well in excess of expected figures, forcing officials to reconsider the project once more. It was during this period that the tunnel idea was scrapped and supplanted by the four-lane bridge proposal. Bids for this project were entertained in the summer of 1972; the winning bids, totaling about $50 million, were selected in August and construction began shortly thereafter. The original approach highways on both sides of the harbor continued their construction as first planned & bid and were not modified to reflect the change in the Outer Harbor Crossing’s proportions. This helps explain why those approaches were seemingly out of place with the remainder of the crossing for years after its completion.

This ca. 1976 photo shows the construction of the Key Bridge's main span well underway, viewed from near Fort Armistead on the west bank of the Patapsco River. (Photo Credit: MdTA)

Design and construction of the Outer Harbor Crossing was overseen by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA), a new agency created in 1971 to manage and operate the state’s toll roads and bridges. While a variety of bridge designs were considered for the Hawkins Point site (including a classic steel suspension bridge), a continuous steel truss superstructure was deemed the most appropriate option for the project. The bridge was nearly 1.5 miles long from end to end and featured an arch-shaped superstructure that spanned about ½ mile, including the central navigation span of 1,200 ft. The roadway was supported from the arch by steel cables and rose to a height of 185 ft above the harbor. It carried four lanes of traffic (two per direction), however it lacked emergency shoulders. Since this portion of the Baltimore Beltway was not initially considered part of the interstate highway system, a design requirement such as this was not present at the time.

Construction of the bridge dragged on longer than expected. One worker was killed during its construction and work on the main span foundations was delayed by material quality issues, causing the budget of the project to inflate dramatically. (It’s important to note at this time that no faulty materials made their way into the finished bridge – much of the cost overruns resulted from the corrections that were made to alleviate the faulty conditions that initially arose.) The bridge was finally completed and opened to traffic on March 23, 1977 at a final cost of $60 million, about $10 million over the initial budget. The completion of the bridge was indeed the final link in the Baltimore Beltway and this section of the freeway carried the initial designation of MD 695, due in part to its substandard two-lane approach highways. 

This January 1977 photo shows the construction of the Key Bridge nearing completion, viewed from Hawkins Point on the west bank of the Patapsco River. (Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)

The bridge’s approaches were gradually expanded and widened in the years that followed. The western approach through Hawkins Point and Curtis Creek was widened in a project that was completed in 1981. This project included the construction of a parallel drawbridge over Curtis Creek – a rare example of a moveable bridge on the interstate highway system. The elevated two-lane viaduct approach through Sparrows Point was replaced with an at-grade four lane freeway in the 1990s. It had been built this way originally, because it needed to span the sprawling railroad yards leading to/from the steel mills and industrial areas of Sparrows Point. Deindustrialization of the area took place in the years following the bridge’s completion and an at-grade freeway was able to be constructed on the now-unused land below. This project, which also included the construction of a parallel bridge over Bear Creek near Sollers Point, was completed in 2000. At this point, the entirety of the Baltimore Beltway east of I-95 was formally added to the interstate highway system as non-chargeable mileage and has been signed as part of I-695 ever since. (I-695 signs did begin to appear on this segment of the Beltway as early as 1988, however it was not officially recognized as part of the interstate system at that time.) In spite of these upgrades, the Maryland State Highway Administration continues to formally recognize the length of the Beltway between the I-95 interchange in Essex and the I-97 interchange in Ferndale as “MD 695” in its internal documents.

Signs like these point the way to the Key Bridge from the local streets of Dundalk, MD. The bridge has also been part of I-695 since 2000.

During the bridge’s construction in 1976, at the height of the American Bicentennial celebrations, it was decided to name the bridge in honor of Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, author, and poet from Frederick, MD. Key witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore at the height of the War of 1812 from a truce ship anchored in the harbor not far from the bridge’s location. The resistance of the Fort during the bombardment inspired to Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry”, which later became the text of “The Star Spangled Banner”, a popular song that was eventually adopted as the National Anthem of the United States by an Act of Congress in 1931.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)

The years of the bridge’s life were largely uneventful. During its lifespan, it became an important component of the region’s freeway network, carrying upwards of 35,000 vehicles per day as of 2023. Since the interstate highway tunnels closer to downtown Baltimore are limited to vehicles of a certain height and are off limits to all vehicles carrying hazardous materials/chemicals, the Key Bridge served as the primary alternate route for this kind of traffic across the region in addition to serving the heavy loads of commercial traffic in the Sparrows Point/Dundalk area. On a personal and human level, it also became a visible symbol of Baltimore and the state of Maryland in general and a landmark the community took exceptional pride in, for the Key Bridge was the “signature bridge” of the region and was one of the most recognizable structures in the city and surrounding area. 

This 2023 photo shows the northbound/outer loop lanes of the Key Bridge (I-695) at the main span.

This 2021 aerial photo shows the Key Bridge's main span superstructure, looking southwest across the Patapsco River toward Hawkins Point.

Part 2 - The Francis Scott Key Bridge Disaster and its Aftermath

"Before & After": The view from Sparrows Point on the east bank of the Patapsco River before the collapse (first photo from 2021) and in the days after the collapse (second photo from March 2024).

The Key Bridge met its end suddenly in a few brief seconds in the early morning of March 26, 2024. At about 1:28 AM ET, the cargo ship MV Dali, which had just departed the Port of Baltimore and was fully loaded with containers bound for Colombo, Sri Lanka, collided with the bridge’s west main span pier, resulting in the complete collapse of the bridge’s main span and three of the Dundalk/Sollers Point approach spans. The collapse was most prominently captured on CCTV video from a webcam positioned in the harbor near Fort Carroll. A second video that circulated on TikTok soon after also captured the collapse from the area of Fort Armistead Park.

The MV Dali measures 984 ft long with a beam of 158 ft, coming in at about 95,000 gross register tons. The ship was owned by the Synergy Marine Company of Singapore and was being chartered by the global shipping company Maersk on this particular voyage. The ship was designed to “New Panamax” capacity, enabling the ship to traverse the new set of locks in the Panama Canal that became operational in 2016. It’s believed that the ship lost power and steering control multiple times in the minutes between the ship’s departure from the docks and the moment of impact. A full investigation (discussed in more detail below) is underway in an effort to identify the cause of these failures. The crew of the Dali sent a distress signal over the radio to the Port and local police forces about two minutes prior to the ship’s collision with the bridge. The Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) Police heard these distress calls over the radio and their patrol cars on each end of the bridge managed to stop traffic from entering the bridge in the moments before the collapse. Their actions saved many lives that night.

The only people on the bridge at the time of the collapse included a crew of seven construction workers and one bridge inspector, who were on the bridge to perform concrete repairs to the bridge’s roadway during a scheduled overnight work shift. Two of these men, including the inspector and one of the workers, were rescued in the minutes after the collapse. The other six men perished in the collapse and their names have been identified as follows:

Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, Essex
Miguel Luna, 49, Glen Burnie
Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, 38, Owings Mills
Dorlian Castillo Cabrera, 26, Dundalk
Jose Mynor Lopez, 30s, Dundalk
Carlos Daniel Hernandez, 30s, Baltimore

Above: These March 2024 photos demonstrate how variable message signs across the region have been alerting drivers about the closure of the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) in the vicinity of the Key Bridge site. These two signs can be found on the southbound/inner loop lanes of the Beltway near Essex and Sparrows Point.

The collapse of the Key Bridge severed the Baltimore Beltway, rendering it a C-shaped highway for the foreseeable future. The Beltway is closed at Exit 1 (MD 173/Hawkins Point Road) in Hawkins Point and at Exit 42 (MD 151/North Point Boulevard) in Sparrows Point. Initially, this closure in Sparrows Point began at Exit 43 (MD 157/Peninsula Expressway), however the MdTA modified traffic patterns in the area in April 2024 to bring the current closures into effect. Fort Armistead Park was closed to the public immediately following the collapse and the area is currently being used as a staging area for emergency response efforts. There is no timetable for when the area might become accessible again.

Traffic patterns in the area have also needed to adjust to the long-term closure of this area of the Beltway. With the bridge no longer an option, motorists in the southern and southeastern reaches of the metro area are now forced to use the Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry Tunnels as they are now the only two available harbor crossings for the foreseeable future. Significant increases in traffic have been noted at both crossings in the weeks since the bridge’s collapse. The other significant consequence of the disaster has been the loss of an important alternate route for overheight vehicles and those carrying hazardous materials, both of which are banned from using the tunnels in the city. The only available alternate route around Baltimore for this traffic for the foreseeable future is the northern arc of the Baltimore Beltway (I-695), which is already a busy corridor prone to congestion.

Above Left: The Baltimore Beltway (I-695) was closed at Exit 43 (MD 157/Peninsula Expwy) in Sparrows Point until further notice at the time of this March 2024 photo. The closure has since been relocated to begin at nearby Exit 42 (MD 151/North Point Boulevard).
Above Right: In this March 2024 photo, the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) is closed at Exit 1 (MD 173/Hawkins Point Rd) in Hawkins Point until further notice.

Many commentators were quick to compare this collapse to similar events that took place in the preceding decades. The collapse of the Almö Bridge in Sweden in January 1980, and the collapse of the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge near St. Petersburg, FL in May 1980, were both caused by collisions with errant cargo ships. The critical difference between those two disasters and what took place at the Key Bridge is that in those two previous examples, poor weather conditions and fog played a significant role in navigation in the minutes prior to collision. As could be seen on the video footage of the Key Bridge collapse, the weather conditions were clear and they played no role in the events leading up to the collision.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began investigating the incident within hours of the bridge’s collapse. This investigation is expected to be comprehensive, thorough, and take at least several months to complete. Among the aspects of the disaster that will be scrutinized are the reported power failures aboard the Dali that caused the ship to lose power in the minutes leading up to the collision. As of April 2024, no evidence has been found indicating the collision with the bridge was intentional or part of any terrorist activity. There is also no evidence to suggest that the bridge’s design played any role in its collapse. A ship as large as the Dali, traveling at such a rate of speed (reported to be about 9 MPH at the moment of impact), would possess the weight and momentum to topple any structure it came in direct contact with. Even if the bridge had managed to survive the direct impact and remain standing, it likely would have still been rendered a total loss, due to severe and irreparable damage.

Another aspect of the disaster that is sure to be scrutinized in the years ahead is the apparent lack of pier protection for the bridge around the main span foundations. In fact, multiple bumpers, or “dolphins” as they are sometimes known, were positioned on either side of these piers. These protective systems were ineffective, because the ship managed to pass around them enroute to colliding with the bridge. It’s also unclear if they would have been large enough to divert the ship away from danger at all. Programs to improve pier protection systems on bridges, such as the one already underway at the Delaware Memorial Bridge on the Delaware River near Wilmington (fully funded with construction underway prior to the Key Bridge disaster) are expected to receive greater attention in the years ahead.

The collapse of the bridge sent thousands of tons of debris into the Patapsco River, effectively blocking the main shipping channels into and out of the Port of Baltimore. The Port’s operations essentially shut down entirely in the days after the collapse for a length of time that remains to be determined as recovery operations get underway. It’s estimated that the Port facilities around the Harbor employ about 15,000 people directly, while more than 100,000 support jobs are indirectly impacted. The economic impact of the collapse is devastating to the local economy as a result, and to the global economy due to the amount of traffic the Port handles annually. (About $80 billion worth of goods were processed through the Port’s terminals in 2023.)

These March 2024 photos show the remains of the Key Bridge as viewed from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, about three miles northwest of the site.

As for the immediate future, the cleanup of debris from the collapse remains ongoing as of April 2024 and is expected to take several months to complete. The priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard is to reopen the main navigation channel to full operational capacity as soon as possible. Only when this happens can the Port of Baltimore reopen to normal operations on a full-time basis. At a press conference in late March, Maryland Governor Wes Moore stated that their objective was to complete this work by the end of May. Multiple large-scale salvage cranes and barges have been arriving at the site in the weeks since the collapse, including the Chesapeake 1000, the largest underwater salvage crane on the American east coast, which has a maximum lift capacity of 1,000 tons.

Beyond the immediate aftermath and recovery, there lies the inevitable question of what to replace the now-former bridge with. Replacement of the bridge with a tunnel would eliminate the navigational hazard in the area, but it would also eliminate the HAZMAT/overheight vehicle detour option that the bridge provided for the region. Any new bridge built at the site would have to conform to modern interstate highway standards and would likely be built with a larger & taller main span than its predecessor in order to enable ample clearance for the ever-increasing size of ships entering the upper Chesapeake Bay. In addition, the placement of a robust pier protection system around the central piers of the replacement bridge will be a likely project requirement.

As of April 2024, no official plans, renderings, or timelines have been put forth, however the U.S. Department of Transportation did approve a $60 million emergency funding measure in March 2024 that enables the fast-tracking of certain elements of the bridge replacement process. In the wake of this terrible disaster, it will be interesting to keep track of the progress at the site as a future Harbor Crossing takes shape in the years ahead.

Part 3 - Francis Scott Key Bridge Photo & Video Archive

The following is a complete collection of photos and videos of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, documented in the years prior to its collapse in March 2024. Click on each photo in this section to see a larger version.

Section I - Key Bridge Documentation Prior to Collapse (2020-2023):
These 2021 photos were taken from Fort Armistead Park in Hawkins Point. This location offered the closest public viewing point for the Key Bridge site:

These 2021 photos were taken from Bethlehem Boulevard in Sparrows Point. This location was one of the only decent public viewing points for the Key Bridge site on the east side of the Patapsco River:

The following 2021-2023 photos showcase the northbound/outer loop crossing of the Key Bridge from Hawkins Point to Sparrows Point. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following 2021-2023 photos showcase the southbound/inner loop crossing of the Key Bridge from Sparrows Point to Hawkins Point. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The following aerial photos from my 2020-2023 visits to the Francis Scott Key Bridge showcase various views of the bridge and its surroundings along the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor in the area of Fort Carroll. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

Dashcam video of the northbound/outer loop drive over the Francis Scott Key Bridge was filmed in August 2023 for the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel in the months prior to the disaster and is available for viewing at the link below:

Dashcam video of the southbound/inner loop drive over the Francis Scott Key Bridge was filmed in August 2023 for the 'roadwaywiz' YouTube channel in the months prior to the disaster and is available for viewing at the link below:

Section II - Documentation of Key Bridge Collapse & Aftermath (2024):
These photos were taken on March 30, 2024 from Bethlehem Boulevard in Sparrows Point. This location is one of the only decent nearby public viewing points for the Key Bridge site following its collapse on March 26, with the Fort Armistead area closed indefinitely. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

These photos were taken on March 30, 2024 from Dundalk Avenue in Dundalk. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

These photos were taken on March 30, 2024 from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge, the disaster, and its aftermath, were the subjects of a special webinar presentation on the "roadwaywiz" YouTube channel in April 2024:

How To Get There:

Further Reading & Sources:


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