What Will Happen Before and After the Dali Is Refloated

A tugboat is tied up off the bow of the Dali and the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge three days after the container ship hit a structural pier causing a subsequent bridge collapse. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) — The ship that caused the Francis Scott Key Bridge to collapse in March, killing six construction workers, is expected to move soon, with officials setting a target of early next week for the refloat.

Moving the ship out of its current position is a critical step in Key Bridge Response Unified Command’s current efforts to reopen the Patapsco River’s main 50-foot-deep, 700-foot-wide shipping channel, which has been closed since March 26. The Fort McHenry Channel being blocked by the bridge wreckage has limited marine traffic into the Baltimore Harbor, though authorities have opened several smaller, alternate paths over the past several weeks to allow ships of increasingly larger sizes to come and go from the Port of Baltimore. The main channel is expected to be reopened by the end of the month.

Earlier this week, crews took the first major step toward refloating the Dali — using explosive precision charges to break up a section of the bridge that was weighing on the top of the ship’s bow. Some of the large bridge piece is still on the vessel’s deck.

Plans to refloat the Dali have been in flux — officials said while planning the controlled demolition that in a best-case scenario, the refloat could be done at high tide two days after the charges detonated. That point came and went Tuesday, as officials said they needed to clear additional wreckage and conduct a dive survey. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier told a congressional committee Wednesday that crews expect the ship “will be able to be refloated and removed from that site early next week.”

Here are the next three big steps for the Dali.

Diving and Clearing Wreckage

Officials have already evaluated sonar and light detection and ranging imagery of the aftermath of the controlled demolition, but they will have to do more in-depth surveying to get a better look at the post-detonation wreckage.

To refloat the ship carefully, crews will also have to conduct a dive survey, Unified Command said Wednesday. To dive safely, they will have to clear some of the submerged wreckage that plunged into the Patapsco River during the controlled demolition, as well as other unstable debris, such as the destroyed section of roadway that’s still hanging off the edge of the Dali’s bow. Some damaged containers will have to be secured or removed as well, officials said, though some bridge pieces might stay on the bow to be removed later.

That process was underway Wednesday morning and expected to be completed “in the days ahead,” officials said.

Once it’s safe, divers will inspect the Patapsco riverbed next to the vessel. Unified Command called the diver survey “a necessary and vital step” in reopening the 50-foot-deep Fort McHenry Channel “in a manner which mitigates risk to the vessel” once it’s refloated. Final surveys could also reveal if additional steps, like dredging, are necessary to refloat the ship.

Refloating the Ship

Through the dives and other surveys, crews are still evaluating what exactly it will take to get the Dali moving.

The factors at hand include the ability of the ship, which has been dormant with its crew onboard for more than 50 days, to operate during the roughly 2-nautical-mile journey. It’ll also take into account the position of the ship on the riverbed and of any remaining wreckage surrounding it. Any operations to move the ship will also have to consider a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. pipeline, which has been purged of gas, that is beneath the riverbed, along with an old water main nearby.

The freighter, which weighs more than 95,000 metric tons when empty, will most likely be escorted to Seagirt Marine Terminal by tugboats.

The temporary channels that have opened for limited commercial and recreational vessel transit will be closed again once refloating operations begin, the Coast Guard said Wednesday.

Getting Pieces Off and People On

Once the ship is moored at Seagirt, more wreckage will be removed from the bow, as well as some of the roughly 4,500 containers on board. Engineers will take a closer look at the vessel’s condition and work on more repairs.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is probing the events leading up to the bridge collapse, will be allowed onto the ship ahead of inspections from parties who have made claims against the companies that own and manage the freighter, according to an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun late last week. The visits by experts and attorneys for the claimants, which include the city of Baltimore, will be limited, staggered and subject to restrictions due to salvage work on the bow of the ship, a representative for Grace Ocean Private Ltd. and Synergy Marine Pte Ltd., the vessel’s respective owner and manager, said in the email.

The ship is expected to remain at Seagirt for four to six weeks, Coast Guard Capt. David O’Connell told reporters earlier this week. O’Connell, the Coast Guard’s captain of the port, said the vessel is then expected to travel to Norfolk, Virginia. A Unified Command spokesperson said last week that the ship will likely go to a shipyard for more permanent repairs.

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