Criminal Justice

FBI opens criminal investigation into Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore

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Cargo ship

Investigators board the Dali cargo ship. The FBI has opened criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Key Bridge after it was struck by the Dali. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The FBI has opened a criminal investigation focusing on the massive container ship that brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore last month—a probe that will look at least in part at whether the crew left the port knowing the vessel had serious systems problems, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Authorities are reviewing the events leading up to the moment when the Dali, a 985-foot Singapore-flagged ship, lost power while leaving the Port of Baltimore and slammed into one of the bridge’s support pillars, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing probe.

On Monday morning, federal agents appeared to board the ship to conduct a search. Less than an hour after the sun rose at 6:30 a.m., a succession of three boats pulled to the port side of the Dali. About 6:50 a.m. Monday, people wearing yellow or orange life jackets entered the Dali through a lower door and climbed a ladder to the ship’s bow. About a half-hour later, nearly a dozen more people wearing dark clothing pulled up in a smaller boat and climbed aboard.

“The FBI is present aboard the cargo ship Dali conducting court authorized law enforcement activity,” the agency said in a statement Monday morning.

The FBI said it did not have any additional public information and would not comment further. The Justice Department confirmed federal agents were on the ship conducting a “court-approved search.”

The criminal inquiry escalates efforts to determine what occurred leading to the crash and who should be held accountable for the disaster. News of the criminal inquiry emerged the same day Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott announced that the city had hired two law firms to work with the city’s own legal team to “hold the wrongdoers responsible and to mitigate the immediate and long-term harm caused to Baltimore City residents.”

Grace Ocean Private owns the Dali and Synergy Marine Pte. is the ship’s manager. Both are based in Singapore.

“My office generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about investigations,” Erek L. Barron, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said in a statement. “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.”

The owner and operator of the ship and attorneys representing them also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The pre-dawn crash March 26 crumpled the Key Bridge, where eight people were working to repair concrete and fill potholes. Six members of the repair crew fell into the water and died, officials said. Two survived.

The criminal investigation is separate from the probe the National Transportation Safety Board has launched to determine the cause of the crash and assess other safety-related measures. The opening of a criminal investigation means the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation, which is investigating in parallel to the NTSB, will pause evidence collection, but it will still be able to analyze evidence it has already gathered to inform safety efforts like new regulations or inspection campaigns, according to a Coast Guard official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigations.

President Biden and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) have both previously said that they intend to hold accountable any parties deemed potentially liable for the destruction of the bridge.

In a statement Monday announcing the city hired DiCello Levitt and Saltz Mongeluzzi Bendesky Trial Lawyers, Scott said the city will take “decisive action” to seek accountability for the Key Bridge collapse, including the owner, charterer, operator and manufacturer of the Dali and “any other potentially liable third parties.” Scott said his administration was forced to act quickly to “protect the city’s interests” after the Dali’s owner and manager within days of the crash filed a petition in federal court to limit its liability.

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