A piece of the Key Bridge rests on the front of the Dali, a container ship, in the Patapsco River on Tuesday. (Maryland National Guard photo / CC BY-ND 2.0)

A Unified Command established in Baltimore on March 27 is coordinating the response for the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. The command includes the U.S. Coast Guard, Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland State Police, and Synergy Marine.

According to Gov. Wes Moore, Tradepoint Atlantic, the developer working to transform Sparrows Point, has offered its assistance and support to keep commerce flowing into and through Baltimore Harbor, which is currently closed to ship traffic.

Ships have already offloaded at Tradepoint, he said, and imported automobiles that are normally processed through Baltimore Harbor are being offloaded at other ports before being brought to Baltimore for processing.

“We are assessing what percentage and capacity (Tradeport can accommodate), what type of cargo, how it can serve not just as a stopgap but potentially an additional supplemental facility, and we’re looking at other locations as well,” Moore said.

Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District, said the Unified Command’s top priority is to reopen the Port of Baltimore, which will be conducted in three phases: reopening the shipping channel, removing the ship, and removing bridge debris from the rest of the waterway.

“We are beginning to make progress on those phases, but we need to do assessments of the bridge both above and beneath the waterline,” he said. “Those assessments continue.”

Staging and preparation

To date, the US Navy has delivered two heavy lift cranes to help remove the bridge structure. A third crane is expected to arrive on the evening of March 29, and a fourth will arrive on April 1.

In the coming weeks, Moore said the effort will grow to include seven floating cranes, 10 tugs, nine barges, eight salvage vessels, and five Coast Guard boats. He added that the 3,000 to 4,000 ton bridge truss will need to be cut into sections in a safe, responsible and efficient way to ensure it can be lifted.

Army Col. Estee Pinchasin, commander of the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the vessel Dali will have to be refloated prior to removal. She added that the same team that assisted in refloating the Ever Forward cargo ship that ran aground in the Chesapeake Bay in 2022 would be bringing their expertise, skills and experience to bear on this new challenge.

“We’re going to be doing that safely and as quickly as possible,” Pinchasin said.

Col. Roland Butler, secretary of the Maryland Department of State Police, said a team of police divers is prepared to resume the search for victims as soon as it is safe to reenter the water.

Maryland State Police’s Aviation Command is providing aerial support for the Unified Command, and the Federal Aviation Administration has established a tactical flight restriction area up to 1,500 feet in altitude extending three nautical miles in all directions from the center span of the bridge.

Adam Ortiz, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic region, said his organization serves in an advisory role. The EPA will evaluate information provided by the Coast Guard on dangerous goods on the vessel and provide recommendations on developing plans and strategies as needed.

“At this time there is no indication of active releases from the vessel, nor of the presence of materials that are hazardous to human health in the water,” Ortiz said. “Monitoring is ongoing.”

Long road

Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) said all members of Maryland’s federal delegation are working to find a way to provide the resources needed to reopen the port and keep Baltimore’s 8,000 dock workers employed.

Mfume also said he has spoken with the administrator of the Small Business Administration to discuss expediting efforts to help small businesses that rely on import-export items survive the port closure.

Moore said he will be proposing the creation of a permanent state scholarship for the children of the transportation workers who lost their lives in the collapse. He also urged the Maryland General Assembly to finalize his budget and ensure that legislation related to the bridge response provides the flexibility his administration needs to support port workers, business and the transportation network.

Paul Wiedefeld, Maryland Secretary of Transportation, acknowledged that the Federal Highway Administration has provided $60 million in emergency funding for the response.

He added that the State Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority have deployed additional emergency response vehicles throughout the region and are also making additional adjustments to help improve traffic flow and reviewing work projects in the region and along detours that might be necessary to support smooth traffic flow.

“We [met with] the port community, businesses and labor to see what assistance we can provide,” Wiedefeld added. “For rebuilding the bridge, we are considering innovative design, engineering and building methods so that we can quickly deliver this project.”

Moore stressed that rebuilding cannot commence until the wreckage has been cleared. 

“I want this to be done quickly and I want it to be done right,” he said. “It’s going to be a long road.”

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