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The Dali container vessel after striking the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday, March 26. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Crews work to lift Baltimore bridge debris

March 31, 2024

By Dalia Faheid, CNN

(CNN) — Crews are working to remove the first portion of Baltimore bridge wreckage – the starting point in a complicated, extensive cleanup process that could help open up a temporary channel to get more vessels into the water around the collapse site, officials said.

Clearing the channel will allow the search for the missing victims to continue and reopen a port critical to the local and national economies, authorities said Saturday. In the meantime, conditions in the water make it unsafe for divers as pieces of the bridge remain submerged in the water.

“This is a remarkably complex operation,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said at a news conference on Saturday.

It’s been five days since a 213-million-pound cargo vessel slammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, killing six construction workers, four of whom have yet to be found. Authorities believe the remaining four victims are trapped in the tangle of steel and concrete underwater.

“Myself and my team will remain focused on ensuring no one forgets one of our critical priorities has to and will continue to be bringing home the remaining missing workers so we can bring closures to their families,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said.

The cargo ship – about the length of three football fields – has as much as 4,000 tons of steel from the bridge’s frame hanging on its bow.

Moore said on Saturday that the cargo ship’s hull is damaged but intact, and that north sections of the bridge will be cut up and removed.

“This will eventually allow us to open up a temporary restricted channel that will help us to get more vessels in the water around the site of the collapse,” Moore said on Saturday.

More tugs, barges and boats can then move into the area “to accelerate our recovery,” the governor said.

“This is not just about Maryland, this is about our nation’s economy,” Moore said Saturday. “Our economy depends on the port of Baltimore and the port of Baltimore depends on vessel traffic.”

The economic impact of the bridge collapse could be wide-ranging as it has indefinitely halted the flow of ships in and out of the Port of Baltimore and delivered a stunning blow to the thousands of dock workers who rely on the busy port.

The first debris lift – which involves using a using a 160-ton crane – marks the beginning of a long process toward reopening the port to tug and barge traffic, Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath of the US Coast Guard said at the Saturday news conference. “Much like when you run a marathon, you’ve got to take the first few steps,” he added.

“If we can open up another [channel] that will help the economy here and move traffic in and out of the port of Baltimore, even if it’s not the deep draft, we wanna take advantage of that opportunity.” Gilreath said.

The port “handles more cars and more farm equipment more than any other port inside this country,” the governor said. Plus, “at least 8,000 workers on the docks have jobs that have been directly affected” by the collapse.

Moore announced Saturday that small businesses affected by the collapse can apply for disaster loans of up to $2 million from the federal government.

After the initial lift takes place, “there still needs to be an understanding of what forms of adjustments have happened,” the governor said.

In order to reopen the port, the Coast Guard says it will first clear debris from the deep draft channel, remove the ship, then clear debris from the bridge across the waterway.

“We are continuing to do diving just for the purposes of evaluating how we can actually potentially cut up portions of the bridge, how we can rig for future lifts with the cranes and how we can figure out exactly how to do this as safely as possible so that we can get that channel reopened,” Gilreath said Saturday.

Ongoing cleanup efforts have included isolating a section of an underwater natural gas pipeline, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company told CNN in an email Saturday.

A spokesperson said the company has “intentionally released gas from that section as a proactive safety measure in support of the salvage operations” near the bridge. The work has not resulted in customer impacts or safety concerns, according to the spokesperson.

Divers could face uncertain conditions when they return to the water

Diving operations were paused for the four missing victims because vehicles were found encased in concrete and other debris, making it unsafe for divers, Col. Roland L. Butler said last week.

After search efforts were halted, remote vehicles were sent down with sonar that plotted what exactly fell deep into the Patapsco River after the collapse, Butler said Wednesday. Drones and infrared technology were also used as part of the search.

Moore said Saturday that drivers will return to the water once it’s safe.

Once salvage operations clear the debris, divers resuming the search for the victims could be faced with a difficult task, according to Mark Martin of marine survey and salvage company at SalvOcean LLC.

“The current there is quite fast and having spent a number of days submerged in Baltimore Harbor, I can tell you that you can never see more than one or two feet in front of your face,” Martin told CNN Saturday.

Still, the current isn’t heavy enough to shift larger pieces of debris, Martin said.

“Once those things start getting cut up, then you have to be careful, you’re gonna have to monitor the current, the direction, the speed, all of those things,” he said.

Sonar is typically continually monitoring any movement of the ship. With the amount of weight on the bow of the ship, Martin said he believes the only movement could be the bow sinking deeper into the sand than it already is.

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