Infrastructure of support after Key Bridge collapse

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Cargo shipped in water with remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge of top of the cargo ship
The remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after a collision with a malfunctioning cargo ship on March 26. (Photo source: Corey Jennings '10, Maryland Comptroller/Flickr)

In 1987, Paul Flinton, then a 23-year-old senior studying at UMBC, decided to make a short documentary focused on the tollbooth workers on the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The six-minute documentary “One Dollar”—named after the toll’s cost for cars at the time—captures a vehicle’s journey across the bridge from the driver’s point of view in one continuous take. As Flinton ’87, visual arts, drives across the bridge, audio of the tollbooth workers interviewed for the project act as the film’s narrators in which they share some of their experiences as toll operators. 

Flinton, who is now a location sound manager for NFL Films, went on to win an award for “One Dollar” from the Maryland State Arts Council following its release. Nearly four decades later, Flinton all but forgot about the film’s existence until learning of the bridge’s collapse following a collision with a malfunctioning cargo ship on March 26, sending eight construction workers into the water and taking the lives of six.

“It hit a nerve,” Flinton told local news after the disaster. “[The film is] sort of a treasure…This captures something that in a lot of ways can’t really happen again.”

Paul Flinton’s short documentary entitled “One Dollar” (1987).

Supporting the impacted families 

The Key Bridge opened to traffic in 1977, and regularly 30,000 vehicles crossed the 1.6 mile span over the Patapsco River. An integral part of Baltimore’s beltway, commuters, community members, and experts are now struggling to make sense of the literal change of transportation landscape. Now that the wreckage is completely cleared away and as the eventual construction commences, UMBC experts offer up their expertise and resources to confront the tragedy.

Felipe Filomeno sitting at his desk with a pen in his hand. There are papers and various books on his desk. He is looking past the camera.
Felipe Filomeno. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

After learning that all of the direct victims of the collapse were immigrants from countries throughout Latin America, Felipe Filomeno, associate professor of political science and global studies, immediately sprang into action with fellow members of the grassroots organization Latino Racial Justice Circle (LRJC). Filomeno, who is president of the LRJC, worked with the organization’s leadership team to establish a fundraiser in support of the families of the victims of the bridge collapse. 

The crowdfunded campaign initially had a goal of raising about $5,000 for each of the families impacted, Filomeno said. Within hours of going live with the GoFundMe campaign, the organization raised $100,000 from donors located all around the world. 

“The fundraiser caught a lot of traction. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of solidarity that we got from across the world in that week when the tragedy happened,” says Filomeno.

Following the fundraising success, the group has since directed prospective supporters to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs’ Key Bridge Emergency Response Fund. The Mayor’s Office is working with the LRJC and case managers to distribute the funding to the six impacted families. 

The tragedy has underlined key issues impacting the Latino immigrant community, challenges that Filomeno amplifies through his community-centered research at UMBC. “[The collapse] has highlighted and publicized to the world issues that we already know exist—the fact that Latino immigrants are over-represented in dangerous occupations,” says Filomeno. “There are higher incidents of work-related accidents among the Latino populations.”

Filomeno’s forthcoming book, Christian Cosmopolitanism: Faith Communities Talk Immigration (Temple University Press, 2024), explores the Honest Conversations on Immigration program he co-developed in 2017 in partnership with the LRJC. The program, Filomeno explains, was designed to build mutual understanding and collaboration between people who are diverse, but share the same religion. 

“One of the goals is to build solidarity across differences,” says Filomeno. “The solidarity across differences is a principle that we also see in the Key Bridge fundraiser.”

Through his advocacy and academic scholarship, Filomeno is working to amplify the need for more long lasting efforts to stand in solidarity with Latino immigrant communities beyond moments of tragedy. “Those problems that became evident with the fall of the bridge, those challenges that the Latino immigrant population faces, they are still there,” he says. “To move the needle on those issues, it has to be more than helping those six families at this point in time.”

Examining the environmental impacts of the collapse 

The ship that collided into the bridge was carrying 56 containers of hazardous materials, including corrosives, flammables, and lithium-ion batteries. The cargo ship was also carrying more than one million gallons of fuel at the time of the impact. City officials began their investigations into the incident, which included determining the environmental impacts to the Patapsco River and surrounding communities. 

Upal Ghosh, professor of chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering, whose research includes examining the effects of toxic pollutants in soils, sediments, and aquatic environments, was among the experts who weighed in on assessing the potentially hazardous effects of the containers that were resting at the bottom of the river. 

Cargo ship that has many pallets shown colliding into the Francis Scott Key Bridge. There are are cranes surrounding the ship and wreckage, attached to the remains of the bridge.
Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman and representatives of the Office of the Governor take a tour of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse site on a Maryland Department of Natural Resources police boat. (Photo source: Corey Jennings ’10, Maryland Comptroller/Flickr)

Ghosh told the Baltimore Sun days after the collapse that environmental officials’ first priority would likely be making sure none of the intact containers were breached.

“If you have containers that contain oily material, those things will, if they are breached, be releasing over time,” Ghosh said. “I would think if there is a release that goes down into the sediments under the water, it would be a local impact right there.” 

Farah Nibbs, assistant professor of emergency and disaster health systems, is also thinking about future ways to contain the effects of similar disasters. Contributing factors to the bridge’s collapse, she says, can be tied to the 2012 expansion and modernization of the Port of Baltimore. Those changes did not happen hand in hand with improvements in safety management needed to accommodate ships of such huge sizes that now were able to port in the city. Risks from collisions, fuel spills, and contamination still lack proper oversight and regulation.

“A novel approach for decision-makers may be to view Maryland’s emergency management and transportation experts and service providers—as well as the physical bridge infrastructure itself—as part of the community’s lifeline systems,” said Nibbs. 

More than a disaster

As plans for the bridge’s rebuilding process begins to take shape, Brian Grodsky, professor of political science, shed light on why Maryland Governor Wes Moore likely did not request a presidential disaster declaration in response to the collapse. Presidential disaster declarations, Grodsky said in a local tv news segment, are usually limited to tragedies that involve fires, floods, or explosives.

“Man-made disasters are more likely to be declined [for a presidential disaster declaration] because there is that question of public versus private ownership of the disaster,” he added. “If this ship caught on fire or exploded under the bridge, this would easily be qualified as a major disaster.”

Deborah Rudacille, professor of the practice in English, is well aware of the lives connected to the construction and opening of the Key Bridge. In 2010, she published Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, a book exploring Baltimore’s industrial history of the Sparrows Point steel mill, but also capturing her family’s connection to the mill and Baltimore staples like the Key Bridge.

Rudacille’s mother was one of the original employees—collecting the toll that Flinton documented in his film— when the bridge first opened in 1977, and her brother worked as one of the bridge’s painters. 

“They were kind of reminiscing about the fact that everything down there is now gone,” Rudacille told local media about her family. “First the steelworks, now the Key Bridge is gone. It’s like this world that they lived and worked in has vanished completely.”

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