Philadelphia bridges: Experts weigh in on local safety measures after Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

PHILADELPHIA - For the people in charge of the four spans of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge crossing the Delaware River, linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the crash and collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge Tuesday morning is a nightmare come alive.

John Hanson, CEO of Delaware River Port Authority, stated, "I’ve seen the video and it’s an unspeakable tragedy." Doctor Abi Aghayere, Professor of Structural Engineering at Drexel University, added, "I was shocked when I saw it – that a bridge could go down that effortlessly."

A container ship struck a pier of the Key Bridge and in seconds, the bridge collapsed into the icy water below. Aghayere continued, "If they are not designed to resist it, then that pier goes. When that pier goes, it’s no longer supporting what we call the super structure, the truss, that supports the roadway and, if that loses its support, if it’s not designed to span from this support to this support after losing its interior support, then it goes down.


FOX 29’s Kelly Rule asked, "Should a bridge in the United States of America ever collapse like that?"

"I would say it shouldn’t, especially a bridge that’s that critical," was Aghayere’s reply.

Constructed in the 1970’s, Dr. Aghayere says the Key Bridge is a three-span continuous truss bridge, not segmented. He says the NTSB investigation will include examining if the bridge was in tip-top shape. "A bridge like that ought to be designed to say if one support goes, because we know we have these ships, can it still stand, in case there were people on the bridge, so they are not thrown into the river and killed. Was this bridge designed to take the impact from such a huge vessel and if it wasn’t, were there protection systems around the pier designed to prevent the ship from hitting the bridge? If there were no protection systems, why?"


The Delaware River Port Authority, or DPRA, is the regional transportation agency in charge of the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross bridges.

FOX 29’s Jeff Cole asked CEO John Hanson, "Could this happen here?"

"We’re always worried about threats here," Hanson replied. "The safety of our bridges and the PATCO train line are always at the forefront of our thinking."

Hanson says the Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry are similar to the Key Bridge, with concrete piers sitting on a foundation in the river. He says after a threat assessment in 2008, safety measures were added to the Commodore Barry.

"Large stone islands around those concrete piers so a ship would run aground before it could ever get to the piers," Hanson explained.

He says the Betsy Ross has what are called "dolphins" in the water, near the supports, shielding them while the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman, both suspension bridges, are protected by shallow water.

"A ship would normally run aground before it can get to a collision to the protection systems. The water is so shallow," Hanson said.

Nearly 100,000 vehicles crossed the DRPA bridges last year. Losing one to a crushing blow would be an economic strike to the region, a disaster the DRPA argues it’s positioned to avoid.


The people in charge of the twin spans of the Delaware Memorial Bridge knew the potential dangers of the newer, bigger, faster ships that travel the world’s waterways and began planning, funding and building anti-collision barricades 20 years ago in an effort to protect and prevent something similar to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday.

"Our bridge will be protected in the event something unfortunate happens. The ships of today and the tankers of today are a lot bigger and a lot faster than they were in the 50s and 60s. There was a conscious decision to move this project along and prioritize it," James Salmon, with the Delaware River and Bay Authority, said.

Anti-collision projects will likely be fast-tracked across the country as the world got the worst kind of warning of what can happen to any bridge left with decades-old protections against the modern-day Goliaths passing under them in shipping channels.

"It’s our $95 million insurance policy. You hope you never have to use it. You wonder why you spend $95 million on a project that’s in the river and, more than likely, it won’t be needed. But, if it is, you have it and we’re gonna have it," Salmon stated.


Search and rescue efforts have ended for Tuesday night, with six missing construction workers now presumed dead. The U.S. Coast Guard says search efforts are shifting to a recovery mission after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed and is underwater, after it was struck by a cargo ship.

Resident Angela Lewis Smith lives near the port. She stated, "Total shock. It’s like unreal. I was like a youngster when they first built the bridge and to get a phone call at 4:30 in the morning to say the Key Bridge was in the water was like, what!"

Maryland Governor Wes Moore said eight construction workers were fixing potholes on the bridge when it collapsed. Two people survived. Six have not been found.

Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath, commander of 5th Coast Guard District, said, "The water temperature at this point, we do not believe that we are going to find any one of these individuals still alive."

Rashad Singletary is the pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church. He described emotions of the day, "Disparity, sadness and fear. Some folks at this church have actually watched this bridge as it was being constructed now to see it fall. It’s demise. When you deal with something as devastating as this, there needs to be an opportunity for people to gather to just give them some hope."

A vigil was organized Tuesday evening with other faith and civic leaders.

Smith attended the vigil. "A need for the community to come together. This is us. And, so losing it, everyone feels some type of way. Really feels sad."