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  April 5th, 2024 | Written by

Regulatory Confusion Surrounding Tugboats and the Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse

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It has been just over one week since the disastrous Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. Investigators are making progress along multiple fronts, and the role, or lack thereof, of tugboats is front and center. 

According to tracking data from, the Dali cargo ship was unaccompanied when it crashed into the Key Bridge on the morning of March 26. Tugboats operated by McAllister Towing and Transportation aided the Dali out of the dock for roughly 30 minutes before leaving the vessel at 1:09 a.m. At roughly 1:25 a.m., the ship began to veer right, departing the main channel and striking the bridge four minutes and 23 seconds later. 

It is common for tugboats to accompany vessels the size of the Dali out of the ship’s berth and then disengage once they reach the channel. Tugboat regulations vary, and ship owners pay for their services. In the case of the Key Bridge, tugboats peeling off before the vessel reaches the bridge are common. But the question with the Dali remains – had the tugboats escorted the ship to the bridge, what would the likelihood of a collision have been?

The Patapsco River is a vital national trade artery. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is tasked with protecting the US transportation systems sector from risks and threats. While CISA designates the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security as transportation co-sector risk management agencies, the issue of tugboat regulation and where responsibility lies remains unclear. 

The US Coast Guard is another entity responsible for risks and threats, as is the Joint Information Center (JIC), an investigative arm involving the US Customs and Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees. Yet, to date, CISA, the US Coast Guard, and the JIC have yet to publically accept regulatory responsibility as it relates to tugboat protocol. 

The Coast Guard can require tugboat escorts for certain vessels if they are deemed hazardous to navigation. The same applies in the event of precarious weather conditions. However, there appears to be an accountability gap where regulatory ownership is unclear.

The economic fallout from the collision is daunting. The Port of Baltimore generates roughly $3.3 billion a year, and 31,000 vehicles use the bridge daily. Had the tugboats been purposely called off, the captain’s log should reflect that.