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A giant crane arrives in Baltimore, but leaders see a 'daunting' cleanup job ahead

A crane is used to clear debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Friday.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
A crane is used to clear debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Friday.

A massive floating crane capable of lifting 1,000 tons at once has arrived at the site of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge as authorities scramble to reopen the main shipping channel to the port of Baltimore.

But even that crane can't move all of the twisted steel that's resting on the bow of the cargo ship Dali.

"That portion of the bridge weighs upwards of 4,000 tons," said Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in an interview that aired Saturday on NPR's Weekend Edition.

"We're at least going to have to cut that portion of the bridge into four different members, and safely lifted off of the vessel, and move it out of our way so we can get to the remaining work," Spellmon said.

Federal money and resources are beginning to flow to Maryland as authorities plan how they will remove the crippled ship, and get the nation's ninth-largest port back to work. But they acknowledge the effort will not be easy, cheap or quick.

For now, thousands of tons of steel and concrete are blocking the main shipping channel in the Patapsco River, three days after a massive cargo ship smashed into the bridge.

"To go out there and see it up close, you realize just how daunting a task this is," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said at a news conference near the harbor on Friday, with the enormous crane looming in the background. "You realize how difficult the work is ahead of us."

The nearly 1,000-foot long cargo ship remains stuck in the river, where it's pinned to the bottom by the wreckage of the bridge that is resting on the ship's bow. Some of the roughly 4,000 containers on board were dislodged in the collision, authorities said, with a few already in the water, or dangling precariously off the edge of the ship.

Authorities say their highest priority is to reopen the shipping channel as quickly as possibly. But first, they will have to remove the ship and debris from the river.

When asked how long that would take, Spellmon said it is still soon to know. But he said the work would likely take place in stages.

The first step is to "remove that portion of the bridge that is currently draped across the front of the vessel Dali," Spellmon said. The shipping channel might initially open for one-way traffic, he said, before it could accommodate two vessels at once.

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath says authorities are still working out how best to use the giant crane and other resources at their disposal.

"Before we can actually engage in lifting, we've got to complete the assessment process of the bridge, and the pieces of the bridge that are in the water," Gilreath said Thursday.

The wreckage of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge lies on top of the container ship Dali in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 29, 2024.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The wreckage of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge lies on top of the container ship Dali in Baltimore on Friday.

But completing that assessment will be difficult. Divers have to work carefully and methodically, Moore said, because the water around the wreckage is so dark and full of debris that they can only see a foot or two in front of them.

The Biden administration has already directed $60 million in federal emergency funding to Maryland. But that's just a small fraction of what it will cost to remove and replace the bridge.

"This is a down payment," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "We still don't know what the total cost will be."

Maritime experts say litigation around responsibility for the accident could take years or even decades to resolve.

"I expect that any private party that could be found liable will be held accountable," Buttigieg told NPR. "But the issue here is, we can't wait for those liability processes to get settled and resolved to get to work and get this bridge back up."

State and local authorities have also declined to say how long it will take to replace the bridge, or what it will ultimately cost.

Civil engineers say it will likely take several years to build a new bridge, at a cost well into the hundred of millions of dollars.

"You're talking about 350 million to 600 million to replace," said L. Sebastian Bryson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky, in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "I would imagine because it's such a critical bridge, it will most likely be fast-tracked. So it will take probably about two to three years to rebuild."

The Biden administration may be able to cover some of those costs with emergency funds that do not require Congressional approval. But sooner or later, the White House will have to ask lawmakers to sign off on additional money. That may be a tough sell with Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly in a presidential election year.

That may be why elected officials in Maryland have been playing up the national economic importance of the port of Baltimore.

"It affects supply chains all over the country, in every state of the union," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat whose congressional district includes parts of Baltimore, as well as Dundalk, Md., and other communities that depended on the collapsed bridge. "We've got to move swiftly to clear the channel."

The Coast Guard says it is monitoring the Dali for any release of hazardous materials.

Authorities say 56 containers on the ship carry hazardous materials of some kind. Out of those, 13 containers have been "impacted" in some way by the bridge strike, the Coast Guard said, with contents that included soap products, perfume and an unspecified kind of resin.

There is a visible sheen on the surface of the water, though Gilreath says that was likely caused by about 20 gallons of oil that leaked from damaged equipment on the front of the ship.

The Coast Guard has been conducting air monitoring on and around the Dali through a contractor, according to a statement, and no harmful or flammable releases have been detected.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.