Temporary Passageway Opens Near Key Bridge Site, as ‘Chaotic Wreckage’ Looms in Main Channel

A crane positioned by the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) — The first of three temporary shipping channels opened Monday on the northern side of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, offering responders a path as they work to salvage the bridge and ship that struck it.

At a depth of roughly 11 feet, the temporary route is a fraction of the main “deep draft” shipping channel’s 50-foot depth. But it will provide a route for shallower tugs and barges, as well as for responders’ boats, officials said.

The goal, the governor and others described at a Monday news briefing, is to create three temporary channels. A second route, south of the collapse and at a slightly deeper depth of 15 feet, could open in the “coming days,” Gov. Wes Moore said. A third alternate route, estimated at a depth of 20 to 25 feet, will ideally allow most tugs and barges to move in and out of the Port of Baltimore.

Before that can happen, more pieces of the bridge will have to be cut and lifted out of the water. Workers’ first crane operation took 10 hours over the weekend and resulted in the removal of a 200-ton span of the bridge. Responders described that as a “small lift,” Moore said.

“The scale of this project, to be clear, it is enormous,” Moore, a Democrat, said. “Even the small lifts are huge.”

The Dali, a Singapore-flagged vessel, has been aground in the Patapsco River since March 26, when it struck one of the bridge’s support columns and toppled the structure. The resulting collapse is presumed to have killed six members of a construction crew repairing potholes; four bodies have yet to be found. The wreckage, mangled steel and torn containers, has blocked the main channel into the Port of Baltimore since then.

The temporary channels could set free some of the trapped commercial vessels, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath said, with two “transits” scheduled for Monday evening. Another Coast Guard official, Petty Officer Kimberly Reaves, said earlier Monday that the temporary channels will likely stay open until the full channel is cleared.

It remains unclear whether that will be a matter of weeks, months or longer.

“These are stepping stones toward finishing a marathon,” Gilreath said. “We’re not there yet. We are making those steps and strides, and we’re going to get there. But it’s going to take us some time. We’re going to do it safely and we’re going to do it as soon as possible.”

Officials have said they are prioritizing the recovery of the four bodies still missing; clearing the channel and removing the Dali; taking care of people affected by the bridge’s collapse, including port workers; and rebuilding the Key Bridge. Moore said Monday it’s become clear there’s more work to be done clearing the channel before other steps are taken.

He and other local officials, including Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, met with a local chapter of the union representing longshoremen earlier Monday, Moore said, adding “we’ve got their backs.” Also on Monday, two new business resource centers opened to assist small business owners and workers with applications for disaster loan assistance and unemployment insurance applications.

Some 15,000 workers have been idled since the port closed, prompting Maryland lawmakers to draft legislation providing temporary relief. The city, state and Baltimore County are working with the federal Small Business Administration to extend relief loans to businesses impacted by the closure. The federal government last week approved an initial $60 million to cover the ongoing salvaging operation.

On Friday, President Joe Biden will pay a visit to the site of the collapse, where he is expected to view the wreckage and downed 1.6-mile bridge.

Moore said at a news briefing that the president would see the “unprecedented level of damage” — a ship “the size of the Eiffel Tower that weighs about as much as the Washington Monument, that’s in the middle of the Patapsco River.”

“He’s going to see a bridge that has been in existence since I was alive … and he’s going to see it sitting on top of the ship,” Moore said. “He’s going to see the level of complexity.”

One particular challenge discussed Monday is the portion of the bridge in the deepest part of the channel. Gilreath called it a more “complicated” situation than officials had initially hoped.

Unlike the steel girders above the waterline, which have significant damage, the girders underneath are “essentially tangled together” and “intertwined,” he said. That makes it challenging to determine where to cut the steel, an essential step before it can be lifted from the channel.

“It is very complicated down below,” Gilreath said. Moore said workers have referred to it as “chaotic wreckage.”

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