FBI boards ship amid investigation into what caused Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse

The FBI on Monday raided the container ship that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge nearly three weeks ago as part of an investigation into the deadly bridge collapse.

Agents boarded the Dali Monday morning and were “conducting court authorized law enforcement activity,” a spokesperson for the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office said Monday, declining to comment further.

The FBI likely is looking into whether any federal laws were broken in the lead up to the bridge disaster, experts said For example, in past American maritime disasters, federal authorities leveraged an old statute known as “seaman’s manslaughter” to prosecute people they believed to have been criminally negligent for people’s deaths.

The Dali, a 984-foot ship which weighed about 112,000 tons loaded with cargo, apparently lost power and rammed one of the Key Bridge’s main support piers in the early morning of March 26, causing the 1.6-mile span to immediately collapse into the Patapsco River along with seven construction workers, killing six men.

Video of the collapse showed the lights aboard the Dali go out and then flicker as it approached the Key Bridge. A local pilot, who was onboard to guide the ship out of the harbor safely, reported losing all power, including the ability to steer, in a “mayday” call shortly before striking the bridge.

The FBI’s criminal investigation would run in parallel to the one by the National Transportation Safety Board, which aims to prevent future accidents.

The NTSB’s investigation has focused on the Dali’s engine room, board chair Jennifer Homendy told federal lawmakers last week.

Officials previously said the Dali’s crew reported to the Coast Guard that they were going to be conducting routine engine maintenance while in Baltimore.

The vessel experienced apparent electrical issues before it left the Port of Baltimore, the Associated Press reported Monday, citing an anonymous source with knowledge of the situation. That person said alarms went off on the ship’s refrigerated containers while it was still docked, likely indicating an inconsistent power supply.

That the FBI said it was onboard conducting “court-authorized law enforcement activity” suggests agents were serving a federal search warrant, Rod Rosenstein, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for Maryland, told The Baltimore Sun. Federal judges sign off on such warrants only after agents present probable cause that there was crime, he said.

“The fact that there is a search warrant suggests there is suspicion on the government’s part, or maybe some evidence, that a crime has occurred,” he said.

Rosenstein said the goal of a federal investigation like this would be to determine what caused the bridge-strike and whether there is any “criminal liability,” be it on the part of the crew, the companies that own and manage the ship, or others, such as a fuel supplier.

That distinguishes an FBI-led probe from an NTSB investigation, which also seeks to find out what went wrong but with the goal of preventing such a tragedy from occurring again — not to hold someone or some entity accountable. The NTSB identifies the probable cause for an accident and provides non-binding safety recommendations for officials and companies.

“We do not conduct criminal investigations,” NTSB spokesperson Jennifer Gabris said in an email.

Gabris pointed to two deadly accidents where criminal investigators worked alongside NTSB investigators and brought criminal charges, one in state court and the other in federal court.

Officials in Maryland and President Joe Biden’s administration have pledged to hold accountable anyone who played a role in the bridge collapse, if investigations support such action.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron said in a statement Monday that his office does not confirm investigations.

“However, the public should know, whether it’s gun violence, civil rights abuse, financial fraud, or any other threat to public safety or property, we will seek accountability for anyone who may be responsible,” Barron said.

Following a separate news conference Monday, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown predicted that his office would pursue legal action against “multiple defendants” that contributed to the bridge collapse.

“As chief legal officer of the state, my responsibility is to file actions to protect the interests of the state, to recover for that damage,” said Brown, who is a Democrat. “So whether it’s the ship owner or others, that’s what we’re currently doing. We’re looking at it, we’re investigating, and when the time is right, we’ll bring a legal action so we can maximize the recovery.”

Baltimore has hired two law firms to pursue legal action against the Dali’s operators, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said Monday. The city’s law department later added that it is “encouraged by the FBI’s commencement of an investigation into the Dali and its catastrophic crash into the Key Bridge.”

The Singapore-based companies that own and manage the Dali previously moved in federal court to absolve themselves of any liability related to the bridge collapse or to limit their liability to the value of the ship plus the revenue it stood to make from its cargo, which they estimated at $43.7 million.

Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Synergy Marine Pte Ltd., the company that manages the Dali, said in a statement that the company extends “our deepest sympathy to all those impacted by this incident.”

“Due to the magnitude of the incident, there are various government agencies conducting investigations, in which we are fully participating,” Wilson said. “Out of respect for these investigations and any future legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

An attorney for the ship’s owner, Grace Ocean Private Ltd., did not respond to a request for comment.

FBI personnel were present at the scene alongside the NTSB and Coast Guard in the days that followed the collapse. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office both stated soon after the collapse that they had found no evidence the crash was tied to terrorism.

Thomas Roth-Roffy, a former longtime NTSB marine investigator, said it’s rare, but not unheard of for the FBI to get involved in such an investigation.

He led the NTSB’s investigation into a 900-foot container ship’s crash into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 2007.

“They were working alongside querying information that we collected,” Roth-Roffy said. “We had a couple of meetings with them to give them information. It was a one-way street.”

In that case, the pilot of the ship pleaded guilty in federal court to negligently causing the discharge of 53,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. He was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.

Authorities have said there’s no evidence of any hazardous materials spilled in this accident, but that’s just one example of what the FBI could investigate, said Lawrence Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham University’s School of Law.

“I’m speculating — I have no knowledge,” Brennan said. “It could be unlicensed people in positions that require licenses, medical conditions, drug use, mechanical conditions with the vessel that were not properly repaired, or falsified repairs.”

Federal prosecutors have used “seaman’s manslaughter” in several deadly maritime incidents around America. That pre-Civil War statute says that neglect or misconduct leading to death by the ship officer is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. It also applies to the companies that own and charter vessels when their “fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law” leads to death.

The pilot of a ferry and his supervisor were each sentenced to more than a year in prison after pleading guilty to seaman’s manslaughter in connection to the 2003 crash of the Staten Island Ferry, which killed 11 people. In that case, the pilot had passed out behind the wheel of the ferry, while the supervisor failed to enforce a rule requiring two pilots on board.

In November, a federal jury convicted the captain of a dive boat that caught fire off the coast of California in 2019, killing 34 people, under the same charge.

The NTSB’s preliminary report, which will be limited to factual findings surrounding the crash and ensuing collapse, is expected in the first week of May, and its final report could take up to two years.