Conspiracy theories fly after bridge collapse. It wasn’t always this way

by Jim Warren

I vividly remember the gruesome wreckage of the United States’ worst aviation disaster. I was among the first reporters to see the burning remnants of a DC-10 near O’Hare International Airport on May 25, 1979. The crash killed all 271 people on board and two people on the ground.

What I don’t recall are absurd conspiracy theories about why American Airlines Flight 191 to Los Angeles dropped from the sky and exploded after takeoff, incinerating people beyond recognition.

It’s a universe from last week’s Baltimore bridge collapse. As detailed by NewsGuard and PolitiFact, we encountered these nonsensical claims: The cargo ship was the victim of a cyberattack that caused a power loss; the collapse was a false flag to divert us from the police raid of rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Miami home as part of a sex trafficking investigation; and it was Israeli revenge for the U.S. abstaining from a United Nations resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire.

And these: The Russians did it because the ship captain was Ukrainian (he was not); the crash was predicted in a Barack and Michelle Obama-produced Netflix movie; and Senate Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell’s late sister-in-law was somehow at fault, an assertion premised on the erroneous claim that she worked for the cargo ship’s Singapore owner.

Conspicuous, too, are politicians — apparently all Republicans — who blame diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs. Phil Lyman, a Republican Utah state representative, took to X to say the collapse “is what happens when you have governors who prioritize diversity over the well-being and security of citizens.”

Lyman additionally posted the message “DEI=DIE” and retweeted a nasty post that targeted the first and only Black woman on the Maryland Port Commission. 

In a more genteel cultural and media universe, before the internet, social media and cable news networks, there wasn’t this loathsome nonsense. What happened to Flight 191 was made clear quickly: The 9,000-pound engine and pylon, which connected the engine to the left wing, fell over the top of the wing and to the runway on takeoff.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that it was all a result of the failure of a pylon damaged by a forklift during an engine change in Oklahoma City two months earlier. The nation accepted the judgment of a government agency (with Jimmy Carter, a liberal Democrat, no less, as president).

More seemingly comparable, however, to Baltimore is the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. The rush-hour disaster killed 13 people and injured 145. With construction going on, more than 100 vehicles and 18 construction workers fell as far as 115 feet into the Mississippi River. Unlike Baltimore, there was no video to prove what happened.

Did the collapse inspire all kinds of fact-free speculation and conspiracy theories? It did not, confirmed Al Franken, the comic writer who was waging his first campaign for U.S. Senate at the time.

“As I recall there were no conspiracy theories bandied about. Just trusted that (the government would) get to the bottom of it. And we did,” he said.

Scott Gillespie was opinion editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune when the I-35W bridge collapsed. There was the inherent mystery of what happened, he said, but conspiracy theories did not mushroom, even as many cities fast-tracked inspections of their bridges.

Twitter and Facebook were young, but they were around by then. Gillespie and Tony Kennedy, a Star Tribune reporter who investigated the collapse, remember a few people wondering about terrorism and explosives. But such possibilities were quickly discounted.

What one did see, Gillespie said, was a traditional blame game among politicians, with Democrats chiding a Republican governor for budgets cuts to infrastructure and not raising taxes for such expenditures.

The National Transportation Safety Board disappointed even the many who assumed that aging infrastructure and poor maintenance were to blame. Neither age nor money was responsible, it held, but rather design flaws in the 40-year-old span. The gusset plates — the sheets of steel that tie girders together — should have been a half-inch thicker.

The board’s conclusion remains the consensus. Again, just like Flight 191, we had an agreed-upon set of facts and confidence in a government agency. Unlike today, we would not have needed organizations regularly exposing misinformation.

“Conspiracy theorists, racists and bad actors interested in using false information to achieve their goals have all been around for a long time,” said Rafael Lorente, dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school. “The difference today is that the conspiracy theorists and racists can communicate with each other and spread their lies and ugliness better and faster than ever before. And so can other bad actors.”

Lorente added: “The Baltimore bridge collapse should be an easy one. We all immediately saw video of a 1,000-foot ship hitting the bridge. Case closed. That should be all the evidence anyone needs.”

Jim Warren, a former managing editor of the Tribune, is executive editor of NewsGuard.