Efforts to clear Key Bridge ruins gain momentum as officials push for assistance

Efforts to clear Key Bridge ruins gain momentum as officials push for assistance

As costly work to unsnarl the ruins of the Francis Scott Key Bridge inched forward Sunday, Maryland leaders pressed Congress to swiftly advance aid money needed to move toward reopening the Port of Baltimore’s consequential shipping channel.

The task of recovering all that was lost when the 185-foot high structure crashed into the water below will be complex, officials said, with each phase bringing the risk of fresh peril.

With demolitions crews at work cutting portions of the north side of the collapsed bridge truss on Sunday, members of the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the tangle of material jutting into the Patapsco River from the wind-whipped bow of a 45-foot Coast Guard response boat. Sharp shards of steel stretched skyward in perfect triangles, several of which weigh roughly 200 tons.

Three dive teams with the unified command surveyed sections of the bridge and the stuck 985-foot-long cargo ship known as the Dali that careened into the Key Bridge on Tuesday, and whose crew members remain aboard.

“We don’t send anybody into the water on a hunch or a guess,” said Col. Estee S. Pinchasin, the district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, describing the painstaking and deliberate work of removing each piece of such a treacherous puzzle. Murky, fast-moving waters littered with debris and downed electrical wires have complicated diving efforts.

Federal, state and city officials from Maryland sought to maintain a sharp sense of urgency Sunday as they took to morning newscasts to pressure Congress to approve relief funds to reopen the port and rebuild the collapsed bridge, arguing that the ripple effects will hurt people and businesses across the country.

“Don’t support this because you think you’re doing Maryland a favor. We don’t need favors,” Gov. Wes Moore (D) said on MSNBC.

“Understand what this means to all the workers and all the other small businesses all around the country,” he continued, saying it would impact farmworkers in Kentucky who need agricultural equipment, auto dealers in Ohio waiting on new cars and heavy trucks, and restaurant owners in Tennessee waiting on spices and sugars brought through the Port of Baltimore, among others.

President Biden promised on the day of the collapse to “move heaven and earth” to reopen the port, and to pay the full cost of replacing the bridge.

An initial $60 million in aid for Baltimore arrived from the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief fund last week, but by some counts, Maryland could end up requesting more than $600 million for Key Bridge recovery from the relief fund and may need more than $1 billion to erect a new bridge, The Washington Post reported Thursday. The Transportation Department’s relief fund only has about $1 billion in it, which could force Congress to vote to replenish it before the end of the year.

But House Republicans have been hawkish in recent months about government spending, and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) may face a rift in his volatile conference about whether and how to move support legislation for Baltimore.

Maryland Democrats offensively pressed congressional Republicans to do so, and have argued that it will be in their constituents’ best interests.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, referenced an undercurrent of resistance to the funding from some GOP corners during an MSNBC appearance.

“Despite what we’re hearing from some people on the MAGA fringes, we believe that Congress will do the right thing and will move to revive this essential node in our transportation network,” Raskin said. “We are talking about wood and coal and steel and cars and just the basic ingredients of the American economy that move through this port.”

When asked to respond to whether racism played a role in some of the criticism about the bridge collapse, Moore said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I don’t have time for foolishness.”

Democrats outside Maryland have joined the pressure campaign for aid, too. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that he would consider voting to save Johnson from a GOP push to oust him if the speaker pledges to pass funding for Ukraine and the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) said partisanship shouldn’t be part of the conversation.

“We are talking about an American tragedy to an American city — American port city — that means so much to this country and the world,” Scott said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “No party conversation should be involved at all.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg detailed the complex path forward in an interview clip the cabinet member posted to X: “It’s not just that you have to remove the wreckage, it’s that you have to do it in a way that doesn’t cause portions of the bridge that are … there across the water to shift,” he said. “They’ve been under a lot of compression and tension. They could behave almost like a spring if they are not expertly managed.”

Removing trusses as massive as those from the Key Bridge can take as long as a week apiece, Pinchasin said, and is dependent on conditions, including visibility. Then, she added, after each section is removed, experts need to take fresh stock of the wreckage — to ensure nothing shifted or moved that could endanger workers or the overall operation.

“You lug one thing out, redo an engineering assessment and lug the next thing out,” Pinchasin said.

The Chesapeake 1000, a gargantuan crane that can lift 1,000 tons at a time, has been deployed to the site and is ready for use, said Pinchasin, but has so far been thwarted by the depth of the water around areas of the wreckage. Officials have instead been relying on two crane barges, and a 650-ton crane and a 330-ton crane to hoist massive steel trusses up onto barges. Eventually, the hope is to remove enough debris to open a channel and allow some vessels to get around the wreckage and the stranded Dali.

Also critical is the recovery of those working on the bridge when it fractured. Two workers were rescued and survived. On Wednesday, authorities found the bodies of Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, from Mexico, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, from Guatemala. Four men remain unaccounted for, and are presumed dead.

Among them are Miguel Luna from El Salvador and Maynor Suazo Sandoval from Honduras, who was about to turn 39, their families said. The identities of two others have not been made public.

The men who perished were fathers, husbands and hard workers who had traveled to this country for lives they hoped would be prosperous and long.

Part of the delicate recovery process that workers from the Army Corps were weighing on Sunday was how to remove the downed web of metal without losing the remains of victims that may still be stuck inside their submerged vehicles, Pinchasin said. It’s a delicate process, and, she added, the Army Corps is committed to recovering the remains of those who died to bring home to their families.

“We are peeling back the onion, so to speak, with every lift. It is not haphazard. It is so methodical with every beast that we lift, we are very careful to know what we’re lifting,” Pinchasin said, her eyes welling with tears. Knowing how the remains may be trapped is “going to change how we go about lifting the wreckage … to ensure that we can honor the fallen.”

“There are four people somewhere here,” Pinchasin said, adding her team is “committed to making sure that we can find them.”

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