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A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Florida, after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge on May 9, 1980, during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 1980. (AP) A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Florida, after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge on May 9, 1980, during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 1980. (AP)

A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Florida, after the freighter Summit Venture struck the bridge on May 9, 1980, during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span, May 1980. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone April 4, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • Before Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed March 26 after being struck by a cargo ship, there were 18 major bridge collapses after ship collisions in the U.S. from 1960 to 2015. These involved structures giving way and falling and/or loss of life. 

  • Reports show minor collisions between vessels and bridges are fairly common in the U.S. A 2016 report estimated there are more than 250 minor collisions per year, or about five per week.

  • A search of U.S. Coast Guard incident reports shows 74 incidents in which vessels collided with bridges in the past year.

After Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge was struck by a cargo ship and collapsed, some social media users sensed that something sinister was afoot.

Video of the March 26 Baltimore accident showed a massive container ship lose power and strike one of the bridge’s piers, knocking the 47-year-old structure into the Patapsco River. 

The shocking video was widely shared on social media, with many people claiming without evidence that the collapse was a terrorist attack, although Maryland and federal officials have said there’s no evidence that it was anything more than an accident. But now it seems some people are on the lookout for bridge-related incidents, drawing larger conclusions from what they suggest is a suspicious trend.

"Maybe it’s just a coincidence," one Facebook user wrote after a barge hit an Oklahoma bridge March 30. "2nd bridge struck in less than a week. What is going on?" asked an Instagram user, referring to the same Oklahoma incident.

Other people on Facebook and TikTok shared a photo of the Baltimore bridge with the words, "3 major bridges in 1 day. All just a coincidence right?" Those posts tied Baltimore with incidents involving the Valley View Bridge in Ohio and the Indian River Inlet Bridge in Delaware, with some of them showing screenshots of news articles.

But these posts draw a connection to the Baltimore accident that doesn’t exist, and exaggerate what happened in Oklahoma, Ohio and Delaware.

  • In Oklahoma, a barge struck a bridge March 30 over the Arkansas River near the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir, forcing officials to close U.S. Highway 59 south of Sallisaw for a few hours while the damage was inspected. Damage to the bridge was superficial and the road reopened after a few hours, according to news reports. Officials have not announced the accident’s cause.

  • In Valley View, Ohio, a pile of raw wood materials at a landscape supply company caught fire March 26 at a site adjacent to the Valley View Bridge, which holds Interstate 480 lanes. The bridge itself was not damaged, and the highway never closed during the fire, state and local officials told PolitiFact. There was nothing suspicious about the fire, officials said.

  • In Delaware, nature was to blame: Beach erosion combined with high tide and a coastal storm led to waves breaching sand dunes March 26 and flooding lanes of a highway just north of the Indian River Inlet Bridge, according to news reports and social media posts from the Delaware Department of Transportation. News photos showed flooding on the roads where the dunes were breached, but no damage or flooding on the bridge itself.

The flurry of attention these incidents received overlook how frequently ships or barges run into bridges. U.S. Department of Transportation data shows there were 621,581 roadway bridges (over land and water) in 2023.

The wreckage of the Amtrak Sunset Limited train is seen Sept. 22, 1993, after it derailed minutes after a barge hit a railroad bridge north of Mobile, Ala. Forty-seven people were killed.

U.S. bridge-ship crashes

We found no federal data tracking such accidents, but a 2018 report for PIANC: The World Association for Waterborne Transit Infrastructure showed that from 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide — events in which structures collapsed and/or lives were lost — because of ship or barge collisions, killing 342 people.

Eighteen of those happened in the U.S., the report said. Among those prominent accidents are:

  • The Big Bayou Canot railroad bridge near Mobile, Alabama: In 1993, a barge lost in dense fog crashed into a railroad bridge, displacing it. Moments later, an Amtrak train derailed on the displaced bridge, killing 47 people and injuring 103 others.

  • The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida: The bridge collapsed in 1980 after it was struck by a freighter. Thirty-five people died in that collapse, many of whom were riding a Greyhound bus that fell into the water.

  • The Interstate 40 bridge in Oklahoma: In 2002, a barge struck a support beam in this bridge near Webbers Falls, sending a 580-foot section of the bridge, and several cars and trucks, into the Arkansas River below. Fourteen people died, local news reported.

  • The Queen Isabella Causeway bridge in Texas: Pilot error was to blame after a barge struck a pillar of the bridge in Port Isabel, causing it to collapse in September 2001. Eight people died.

Not all ship or barge collisions with bridges result in bridge collapses or loss of life, and reports show minor collisions are fairly common.

The 2018 report said that during a two-week period in January 2016, there were six barge collisions with highway and rail bridges crossing the Mississippi River because of floodwater conditions.

A separate 2003 U.S. Coast Guard report found towing vessels and barges collided with bridges in U.S. waters 2,682 times from 1992 to 2001. Given the number of tugboat and towboat trips each year, the report said, that means collisions with bridges happened at a rate of 0.06% — or six collisions for every 10,000 boat trips.

The Coast Guard report said human errors are the "predominant factor" in bridge collisions. 

Michael Knott, a vice president at Moffatt & Nichol, a global infrastructure advisory company, declined to be interviewed because his company is working with federal and Maryland transportation agencies involved in the Baltimore accident. But Knott co-wrote the 2018 PIANC report and gave a 2016 presentation in Maryland to the Baltimore Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The presentation noted more than 250 minor vessel collisions with bridges each year in the U.S., averaging about five per week. Accidents are because of pilot error, mechanical failure or adverse environmental conditions, the presentation said.

To see how common these incidents are, we also searched the Coast Guard Maritime Information Exchange Incident Investigation Reports using the keyword "bridge." Results showed 74 reports of bridge collisions with vessels in a one-year period (April 3, 2023, to April 3, 2024). That’s an average of about six per month.

Many incidents happened within days of one another, and the entries with detailed information show most were minor incidents, although many were still listed as under review.

For example, on April 11, 2023, a towing vessel collided with a railroad bridge on the Black Warrior River in Alabama. No damage was found on the vessel or bridge, the report said. A separate report on the same day shows the same bridge was struck by another vessel. The bridge was minimally damaged, the report said.

PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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Our Sources

Facebook post, March 30, 2024

Facebook post, March 29, 2024

Instagram post, March 31, 2024

PIANC, The World Association for Waterborne Transit Infrastructure, Ship and barge collisions with bridges over navigable waterways, 2018 

Michael Knott, vice president at Moffat and Nichol, Ship & Barge Collisions with Highway Bridges presentation, 2016

The Associated Press, A list of major US bridge collapses caused by ships and barges, March 27, 2024

The Associated Press, Oklahoma highway reopens following shutdown after a barge hit a bridge, March 31, 2024

KFSM-5News, Officials say 'superficial damage' was made to Highway 59 bridge after barge crash, April 1, 2024, Has a bridge ever collapsed in Louisiana? Take a look back after Baltimore tragedy., March 27, 2024

Tampa Bay Times, Lessons from Skyway disaster failed to help protect Baltimore bridge, March 28, 2024

WFLA, News Channel 8, Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapse brings back memories of Sunshine Skyway Bridge tragedy, March 26, 2024

KHBS 40/29 News, Webbers Falls bridge collapse killed 14 people in 2002, March 26, 2024

My San Antonio, Texas had a bridge collapse in 2001. The city is still recovering, March 26, 2024, Baltimore Key Bridge collapse stirs memories of Alabama’s deadly 1993 Amtrak derailment, March 26, 2024

PBS, How can bridges be protected from ship collisions? A civil engineer explains, March 30, 2024

Oklahoma Department of Transportation, X post, March 30, 2024

Florida Department of Transportation, Basics of Vessel Collision, 2019

Cape Gazette, Water breaches dunes north of Indian River Inlet bridge, March 26, 2024

Delaware Online, After ocean breaches dunes, Route 1 reopens just north of Indian River Inlet Bridge, March 26, 2024

Delaware Public Media, DelDOT and DNREC are working to strengthen dunes near Route 1 and Indian River Inlet Bridge, March 27, 2024

Delaware Department of Transportation, Facebook post, March 26, 2024

Delaware Department of Transportation, Facebook post, March 26, 2024

Delaware Department of Transportation, Facebook post, March 26, 2024

PolitiFact, Baltimore bridge accident, fire near Ohio bridge aren’t connected, March 29, 2024

U.S. Coast Guard, Investigation Activity Reports, searched April 11, 2023


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