Tragedy in Baltimore

May 22, 2024
A community rallies around Brawner Builders

At 1:29 a.m. on March 26, a law enforcement officer in the Port of Baltimore sent the following radio transmission to dispatch:

“The whole bridge just fell down. Start whoever. Everybody. The whole bridge just collapsed.”

Forty-five minutes later, David Berkhimer woke up to his phone ringing.

As the vice president of infrastructure at Brawner Builders, a contractor company headquartered in Hunt Valley, Md., he had an eight-man team filling potholes on the Francis Scott Key Bridge that night.

Berkhimer answered the phone and heard what he called indescribable news: a fully loaded container ship named Dali hit the Key Bridge, and it had collapsed into the Patapsco River.

Six of Berkhimer’s team members were missing. One member of Brawner Builders’ road maintenance team survived by swimming ashore after falling into the river. An eighth man, a state employee, survived by running from the bridge.

Berkhimer got dressed and rushed from his home. He drove to the southern end of the Key Bridge, near Fort Armistead on Hawkins Point.

Jack Murphy, the owner of Brawner Builders, drove to the north side of the bridge, near Dundalk. Kevin Zinkand, a senior project manager at Brawner Builders, who was the first to receive a call, joined Murphy. The three men wanted to be on each side of the bridge in case there was news.

Berkhimer watched as the area along the shore crowded with police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and boats with rescue equipment.

“It was a surreal experience,” Berkhimer said. “They were all very committed and determined to get out there on the water and find our guys.”

Hours passed, and as the sun rose over Baltimore, Berkhimer and Murphy remained on their respective sides of the bridge, hoping for good news.

“It was a difficult morning to just wait,” Berkhimer said.

The six Brawner Builders employees who died when the Key Bridge collapsed — José Mynor López, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, Maynor Yasir Suazo- Sandoval, Carlos Daniel Hernandez Estrella, and Miguel Angel Luna Gonzalez — have since been recovered from the Patapsco River. López, the last to be found, was discovered on May 7.

The Key Bridge collapse is a layered tragedy. From a struc- tural perspective, it has started an industry-wide conversation

about protection systems around bridge pillars. The event also has pushed the importance of work zone safety to a new level of awareness. It is an international disaster, as the workers were from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, and the Port of Baltimore is vital to the supply chain, as well as the global economy.

And Brawner Builders, a reliable, dedicated, and hard- working contracting company that has worked on Maryland’s roads and bridges since 1980, sits at the center of everything as they mourn and care for the families of their dead colleagues.

Grieving like this is usually done in private, away from work and the public. But Brawner Builders had contracts for other jobs that they had to tackle. It also has received attention from national media outlets. Brawner Builders doesn’t have a com- munications director, so Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice presi- dent and general counsel for Brawner Builders, has stepped up to speak to mainstream media outlets.

“We’ve received hundreds of phone calls from media all over the world, but primarily New York, Chicago, and Baltimore,” Pritzker said. “It’s been a full-time job.”

Pritzker added that calls from people asking how they can help the families have been mixed in with the media requests.

“Which is something that’s really wonderful,” he said.

Immeasurable Loss

The Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest in the United States, and though four channels have been opened, until the 984-foot-long Dali is removed, the collapse will continue to impact economies around the world.

In 2023, the port handled 52.3 million tons of international cargo, which was worth about $80.8 billion.

After the collapse, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore went so far as to call this a “global crisis.”

Locally, the collapse has impacted businesses throughout Baltimore and created a traffic nightmare, as the 35,000 cars and trucks that used the Key Bridge each day find alternative routes.

But lost revenue and minutes stuck in traffic are ripple effects that can be calculated.

There is no way to measure how devastating the collapse is to the roads and bridges construction industry in the Baltimore region.

This is a community of infrastructure workers who were still reeling from the Interstate-695 work zone crash that killed six highway workers on March 23, 2023.

On that day, two motorists were driving over 120 miles per hour, according to police. One driver hit the other while changing lanes. This forced the second driver to spin out of control and go through an opening in a concrete barrier, hitting and killing six highway construction workers from Concrete General, Inc.
The construction team who died included Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, Jose Armando Escobar, Rolando Ruiz, Mahlon Simmons II, Mahlon Simmons III and Sybil Lee Dimaggio.

Michael Higgins, the general manager at Concrete General, said the Baltimore construction industry seems to be in disbelief over how these two tragedies have occurred almost a year apart.

“But the industry is very strong here in the state of Maryland,” Higgins said. “We are willing pitch in to help in whatever way.”

That’s one silver lining to come out of these tragedies. Though shocking and devastating, they have united Baltimore’s construction industry, and Brawner Builders, its employees, and their families have been supported during this rough time.

“It really does speak to what a tight knit community this construction industry is here,” Berkhimer said.

A Family Company

Brawner Builders rents equipment and inspects bridges. Its team has renovated buildings, constructed offices, and built shopping centers, heavy industrial plants, and academic institutions.

Its portfolio also includes Maryland infrastructure projects like the Harford Road Bridge over Herring Run Park, the Interstate-83 emergency repair project, the Patapsco River Pedestrian Bridge, and the Interstate-70 Parapet Rehabilitation Project.

Murphy began working at Brawner Builders when he was
in college. He started as a laborer, and after he graduated, he was hired as foreman. He was promoted to superintendent and eventually bought the company from its founder, Jay Brawner.

“This is not a family-owned company,” Berkhimer said. “But it is a family company.”

On the morning the bridge collapsed, after the sun came up over the port, Berkhimer, Murphy, and Zinkand turned their attention to the families of the missing men.

Brawner Builders representatives, including Berkhimer and Murphy, met up with the families and sat with them for several days following the collapse.

Pritzker said the families received prepaid credit cards for whatever they need.

“We are continuing the flow of compensation to those families while we try to figure everything out,” Pritzker said.

Brawner Builders must handle workers compensation and insurance. While that gets ironed out, the company also set up a GoFundMe campaign for the families. Titled “Brawner Families Relief Fund,” the campaign has raised over $163,000, with a goal of $300,000.

There isn’t a playbook that contracting companies can turn to during a crisis like this. But the company’s family-first approach seems to be working.

Brawner Builders also enlisted the help of grief counselors to speak to its employees, from office staff to field crew members.

A few days after the collapse, the company held one large session to talk through what had happened as a group and discuss how everyone was feeling. Berkhimer said they wanted employees to be aware of the counseling programs to which they had access.

Days later, Berkhimer talked to one of his foremen about the group session and how it was received by the employees.

“His response to me was, ‘You know, I was always of the mindset that I don’t need to talk to anybody,’” Berkhimer said. “And he told me he couldn’t believe how much that helped.”

One Year Later

The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) hosted this year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week in April. To open the week, MDOT held a ceremony on Interstate 70, overlooking the site of the Interstate-695 crash that killed
six workers in 2023. As the ceremony ended, more than 200 transportation vehicles participated in a “Unity Ride” around the I-695 Beltway in support of work zone safety.

Brawner Builders participated in the Unity Ride, and though the two tragedies are different in many ways, they will likely be linked because of the timing and the region.

Those who felt the ripple effect from the I-695 Beltway crash are on the other side of the grieving process, but it
hasn’t changed how shocking it was. And seeing industry contemporaries in the same city go through it a year later has brought back those memories. Higgins remembers being in the Concrete General office after the 2023 crash happened.

“It was very surreal,” he said. “You’re almost in disbelief that something like that could happen.”

Higgins said that grieving the deaths of six employees over the past year has been one of the hardest challenges of his career at Concrete General.

“It’s a very difficult process to get through, to steer an organization through such a catastrophic loss,” Higgins said. “There’s no formula for how to address it. Each company and its leaders need to address it in a way that best fits their folks and their families.”

Higgins said that, as Concrete General grieved, a major challenge for leadership became aiding employees who couldn’t help but think, “that could have been me” or “that could be me tomorrow.”

Officials across Maryland have responded to the I-695 Beltway crash with action. Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller chaired the work zone safety work group, which released a recommendation in January that a cultural shift must occur among drivers.

After the National Work Zone Awareness Week opening ceremony, Miller said that it’s important for drivers to prioritize workers on America’s roadways.

“People often don’t acknowledge the great severity of the work that they encounter on a daily basis,” Miller said. “With high-speed vehicles flying by them while they are trying to do construction work, that is not an easy site to be working at, so we want to make sure they are protected as much as possible. That’s why we’re moving forward with education, engineering, and enforcement.”

Teri Soos, deputy chief operating officer at Maryland’s State Highway Administration, oversaw the incident response of the I-695 Beltway crash. She agrees that drivers need to change.

“We know drivers seem to be displaying some rather risky behavior on the roads these days,” Soos said.

She also believes innovation could provide solutions. Soos said the SHA is moving towards using automated flagger assistance devices.

“It removes that human being from that very exposed position as the first point of contact that the driver might come across,” Soos said.

Work zone safety is an ongoing challenge for the industry. Educating the public, embracing innovation, and enforcing traffic laws seem to be a great strategy. However, that doesn’t apply to what happened to the Key Bridge, which seems to have been a tragic accident. For the foreseeable future, one question will be discussed throughout the industry: Could the Key Bridge tragedy have been prevented?

Safety Measures

In 1980, a freighter ship collided with a support column of Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Rush-hour traffic was on the bridge, and when it collapsed, 35 people died.

The bridge was rebuilt with numerous safety enhancements to safeguard against future collisions. The bridge was elevated from 800 feet to 1,200 feet. The channel was widened and incorporated two layers of protection for bridge piers.

Most importantly, when the bridge reopened in 1987, it features 36 dolphins — circular concrete barriers along the bridge’s central supports to protect the structure from impact.

Two rock islands were also built to surround the main channel supports and go all the way to the sea floor.

A steel arch continuous through truss bridge, the Key Bridge opened in 1977 and did not have those safety measures. It’s impossible to know if dolphins would have prevented the Dali from hitting and collapsing the Key Bridge. The Dali is nearly

as long as the Eiffel Tower. It weighs 95,000 tons empty — and it was fully loaded. However, when the Key Bridge is rebuilt, safety measures such as the ones incorporated into the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge will likely be considered.

The Key Bridge collapse could prove to be a wakeup call. There are roughly 309 major bridges spanning navigable water- ways in America, and according to a recent report by the New York Times, 193 of those bridges have no protections installed around the piers. These are bridges in cities like Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia; each carry more 10,000 vehicles over it a day. Yet, their foundations are at risk of being struck by ships.

However, engineering can only make construction work- ers so safe. As Miller pointed out, it also takes education and enforcement. Or, as Berkhimer put it: “We need everybody to step up and pay closer attention and do their part to keep everybody safe through these work zones.”

To donate to the GoFundMe that will support the families of the men who died on the Key Bridge, please visit brawnerbuild- The link is at the top of the pageRB

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