We’ve Seen Bridges Like Baltimore’s Collapse Before. And We’ll See Plenty More.

baltimore's francis scott key bridge collapses after being struck by cargo ship
What to Learn From the Baltimore Bridge CollapseKevin Dietsch - Getty Images

In the quiet hours after midnight on Tuesday, March 26, a catastrophe unfolded in Baltimore as the Francis Scott Key Bridge, a 1.6-mile-long steel structure, was struck by the container ship Dali in the Patapsco River.

The collision, which Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott likened to “something out of an action movie,” has sent shockwaves through Baltimore and beyond as emergency services launched a search-and-rescue operation for those who were on the bridge at the time of the collapse

Sadly, the Baltimore bridge collapse highlights a reality we often overlook: that the marvelous structures we cross every day, large and small, can be secretly dangerous, no matter how sturdy they seem.

PopMech has long reported on the world’s architectural triumphs—and the tragedies that sometimes follow. Amid the ongoing crisis in Baltimore—a bridge lost, lives in jeopardy, and a city’s resilience being tested—plenty of stories from our past can provide important context and cautionary tales.

We haven’t just explained why bridges technically fail; we’ve gotten to the root of America’s frustrating infrastructural challenges, highlighted the heroic teams that respond to structural disasters, and aimed to offer a playbook for how to prevent future collapses. As we unpack the tragic news out of Baltimore, where the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which carries over 12.4 million vehicles a year, buckled under the impact of the Dali, the stories in our archives emphasize the importance of being vigilant, and taking the proper preventative measures, to keep our country’s bridges safe and strong.

Here are just a few stories from PopMech that offer valuable perspectives on bridge collapses, both as teachable moments and urgent calls to action.

A Strange Creature Was Lurking in West Virginia. Then an Iconic Bridge Collapsed.

wreckage from the silver bridge collapse at point pleasant wv

On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant, West Virginia with Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed into the Ohio River. The collapse, which occurred during rush hour and resulted in the loss of 46 lives, was traced to a tiny crack in a single, critical eyebar, exacerbated by a flawed design that couldn’t withstand the increased load and environmental strain. It spurred a nationwide overhaul of bridge safety protocols and inspections, and the disaster remains etched in the community’s memory, intertwined with the local legend of the Mothman … who some believe foretold the collapse.
Read the full story here.

The I-95 Collapse Is a Tragic Reminder That U.S. Bridges Are Still Built Without Fire Safety in Mind

us accident transport highway philadelphia
KENA BETANCUR - Getty Images

The 2023 collapse of a section of I-95 in Philadelphia after an intense tanker fire revealed a huge oversight in bridge safety: the lack of fireproofing. The fire heated the steel girders to temperatures where they could no longer bear the bridge’s weight, leading to a catastrophic failure. Experts call for fireproofing routes commonly used by fuel tankers; this could protect structures long enough for fires to be extinguished, potentially preventing such deadly incidents. So why aren’t engineers listening? ➡ Find out the truth.

What We Can Learn From the Minnesota Bridge Collapse

major freeway bridge collapses in minneapolis during rush hour
Scott Olson - Getty Images

The deadly failure of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis killed 13 people in 2007. Its replacement is an engineering success story—yet other infrastructure projects around the country remain on the back burner, even as the tally of deficient bridges and other structures expands. ➡ Read the full story here.

Just How Fragile Are America’s Bridges?

i 5 bridge collapses on skagit river in washington
Stephen Brashear - Getty Images

When a bridge fails, we hear scary terms like "structurally deficient" and "functionally obsolete." Here’s what that engineering jargon really means.

How to Fix U.S. Infrastructure

an aerial view shows the collapsed i 35w
MANDEL NGAN - Getty Images

In this sweeping 2008 investigation of America’s faltering infrastructure, PopMech revealed a pressing need for innovation and urgent repairs. How much has changed in 16 years?
You be the judge.

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