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Baltimore Bridge Collapse

NTSB investigations in the spotlight with Dali bridge collision

NTSB/Youtube Dali-NTSB.png
At the end of March, the maritime world, along with the broader population, was captivated by the dramatic allision of the containership Dali with the Francis Scott Key Bridge, while it was moving outbound from Baltimore harbor.

The search for answers regarding the actual cause of events aboard the vessel has put the spotlight on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent Federal agency tasked with investigating accidents across transport modes.

Seatrade Maritime News had the opportunity to speak with Ben Allen, now a Washington, D.C. based Partner at law firm Holland & Knight, who earlier in his career, worked as Assistant General Counsel at the NTSB.

“They try to issue a preliminary report within 30 days, that will have some basic information- what they know up to that time…but the more detailed analysis will not come until the final report,” Allen said, suggesting a timeline of one year, with this being a high-profile accident with significant safety implications for the release of all the NTSB findings.

He did acknowledge that it might take longer. The extensive and highly detailed work within the agency would be spearheaded by its Office of Marine Safety, with its team all having maritime backgrounds- including in the US Coast Guard and in both technical and commercial sides of the industry. In its analysis, the investigators would start with the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) aboard the vessel- “which can help guide the investigation down whichever path seems appropriate…the investigations always start with a very broad viewpoint…at the beginning, everything is fair game”, he said.

Allen explained further, “The NTSB looks at why did something happen. As they move deeper, they will begin to eliminate causes.” Possible issues with the collapsed bridge are also within the scope of the NTSB, with Allen pointing out that the agency’s authority extends to motorways, as well.

As its work continues, he explained that the NTSB will invite representatives from manufacturers of parts and systems aboard the vessel, that might have played a role in the incident, to participate in face-to-face discussions with the investigators. This phase is already underway; recent media reports have noted that personnel from engine manufacturer Hyundai were in Washington, D.C. talking to investigators. The investigation, using a process called “The Party System”, will be split into groups (examples- human factors, technical systems) and then delve deeply into the facts.

In his view, “The Party System keeps everybody honest…if one party sees that another is pointing blame at it, that party can turn around and challenge the other one…each group does actually sit in the same room and work jointly on interviewing and collecting evidence.”

Allen stressed that the company representatives, with technical roles (rather than lawyers) brought in “would be there to assist in gathering relevant observations and information…but not in determining causality of the accident,” adding that: “once the fact-gathering is completed, the participants are sent home, and the NTSB experts will then conduct their analysis just among themselves.”

The discussion also delved into issues of liability for what happened; the vessel owners and managers have jointly filed documents in the US Federal courts (Northern District of Maryland) limiting their liability to just under $44 million - the value of the vessel post-allision (reflecting likely salvage and repair costs) plus freight receivable, citing legislation enacted in the 1850s. Allen said the owners/ managers could be exonerated if the factors were totally not the owners’ fault, but he stressed that “privity of knowledge” is a key factor.

 “Under the Limitation of Liability Act [the 1850s legislation], it has to be something that the owner or manager knew about or should have known about,” he explained, when asked about circumstances that might assign the owner/ managers liability above the $43.7 million in their Court filing. In describing the process of sorting through likely financial claims (including possible efforts by Federal entities to recoup costs), Allen said, “It will take many years to sort though.”

Resources for readers:

Resource: NTSB Office of Marine Safety

Resource: NTSB Accident reports

Resource: “The Party System”