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‘Get the port up and running’: Clearing out the tangled mess of Baltimore’s Key Bridge; Corps hires Resolve Marine as salvor of container ship

To reopen the Baltimore harbor, the remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge must be removed from the tangled wreckage now resting in the Patapsco River

Posted on March 27, 2024

To re-open the Port of Baltimore to vessel traffic, authorities will need to clear the shipping channel. To clear the shipping channel, the massive, stuck cargo ship will need to be freed. For the ship to be freed, the fallen steel bridge, weighing it down, will need to be removed.

Recovery from disaster is complex and cumbersome. The White House has promised to replace the now-destroyed Francis Scott Key Bridge. But first, authorities will seek to restore the economically critical shipping channel that leads to the port, an essential nexus of commerce.

On a dreary Wednesday in Baltimore, as Marylanders learned more about the six men killed when a container ship struck one of the bridge’s support columns a day earlier and toppled the section of Interstate 695 into the Patapsco River, recovery efforts were underway to locate their bodies as well as clean up the mess in the river.

Authorities searched the water for the missing men Tuesday and then for their bodies Wednesday, locating two in a pickup truck. They switched their efforts Wednesday evening to a “salvage operation,” said Lt. Col. Roland L. Butler Jr., superintendent of the Maryland State Police.

“We’ve exhausted all search efforts in the area around this wreckage and based on sonar scans, we firmly believe that the vehicles are encased in the superstructure and concrete that we, tragically, saw come down,” he said.

Several officials, from the Coast Guard to Gov. Wes Moore to Maryland’s U.S. senators stressed the port’s significance at the news conference. U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen indicated that, if needed, one shipping lane could be open before the whole channel is ready.

“Make no mistake about it, our top priority is to get the shipping lane open,” U.S. Sen Ben Cardin said. “We recognize that every day it’s closed, the impact it has not just on Baltimore and our economy and the state economy, but our country, and it affects the global supply chain.”

Preliminary estimates for clearing the channel are roughly $40 million to $50 million, Van Hollen said. The funds will come from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ budget typically used for dredging operations, he said. That account will need to be backfilled later.

“Those funds in that account are immediately available, and that’s very good news. That relieves the state of significant costs,” Van Hollen told The Baltimore Sun.

The Corps will lead efforts to clear the channel, working with other agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

Resolve Marine, a maritime response company, is the designated salvor, meaning it will work to refloat the vessel.

Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier said clearing the channel aligns with President Biden’s “direction to get the port up and running as soon as possible.”

As soon as possible won’t be immediate, though.

“This will not take a month. This will take time,” Gov. Wes Moore said earlier on Wednesday, when asked if the clean up might take months or years.

In 2007, a steel bridge that carried Interstate 35 across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. At the time, Evan Mackey was the demolition division manager with Bolander, the company tasked with clean up. The debris took three months to clear; another steel bridge clean-up project he worked on took five.

The process is meticulous. For example, to remove a steel beam deep in the river, divers might rig it with cables. Then, a crane stationed on a barge could pull the debris to the surface. In other instances, excavators on barges can lift wreckage to the surface. That detritus can be placed on a separate barge and be taken to shore, where it will be recycled.

Part of the process is using a cutting torch — even underwater — to make large pieces of debris smaller.

“It’s like cutting up a loaf of bread,” Mackey said. “You start on one end and start cutting it into slices.”

In addition to the huge pieces of bridge, it’s essential to locate and remove any and all debris in the water, whether it be cars or smaller chunks of material. In Minnesota, Mackey’s team used sonar to ensure the channel was clear.

In Baltimore, the Corps is expected to use a debris removal vessel to rid the area of anything hazardous.

“They’ll want to clear out that shipping channel as quickly as possible,” said Jim Bellingham, a Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering professor with a focus on autonomous marine robotics. “And they’ll also want to make sure that the shipping channel doesn’t have debris in it, which might damage a ship.”

Each recovery has unique, challenging factors. Complicating matters in the Patapsco River is the 984-foot ship, with roughly 4,700 containers on it (minus two that fell overboard in the crash), tangled with the bridge remains. Some of the bridge is weighing on the front of the ship, forcing the bow to sit on the bottom of the river.

“A portion of the bridge remains on the bow of that ship and we will be coordinating very closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and their contractors to first affect the removal of that debris before the vessel can then be removed,” Gautier said.

Removing the vessel figures to be easier than in a 2019 case off the coast of Georgia, when a cargo ship capsized and authorities had to cut it into eight giant pieces to remove it.

In that case, lawsuits were filed against the ship’s owner, its manager and the salvage company. Private companies could be found liable in the Key Bridge collapse, too.

“Any private party that is found responsible and liable will be held accountable,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said. I think our emphasis and the president’s goal is to make sure that that process is not something we have to wait for in order to support Maryland with the funds that they need.”

Charlie Simmons, a partner at Whiteford Law who teaches maritime law at the University of Maryland Law School and the University of Baltimore School of Law, said it’s likely the federal government could initially foot the bill, then seek reimbursement later from any party found liable.

“Somebody’s gonna say, ‘Now we want our money back,’” Simmons said. “There are going to be lots of people who are going to be alleged to be responsible.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the bridge strike and whether any person, company or government is responsible. It has not made any findings, and the process can take months.

In other cases, ship owners, managers and pilots have been blamed, and government agencies have been accused of not adequately carrying out their duties to inspect vessels or maintain and protect structures.

As the recovery continues in Baltimore, there are also environmental concerns, including 1.5 million gallons of fuel on the ship and 56 containers that have hazardous materials. The Maryland Department of the Environment is on scene to “mitigate” any such concerns, a spokesperson said.

As the channel is cleared and, eventually, a bridge is rebuilt, Bill Dennison, interim president for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, stressed environmental responsibility.

“Human nature is, ‘Let’s hurry up, let’s fix this now, it needs to happen quickly,’” he said. “And there will be a lot of pressure to do it quickly. We just have to make sure that we do it thoughtfully and carefully — as well as quickly.”


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