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Clearing Baltimore's shipping channel won't be easy, will take at least weeks

An aerial view of the cargo ship Dali after it ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Tasos Katopodis
Getty Images
An aerial view of the cargo ship Dali after it ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Days after a massive container ship slammed into Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing the structure to crash into the narrow waterway, clearing debris from the channel so that maritime traffic can resume is an urgent priority.

"It has to be done very quickly," says David Von Schmidt, a naval architect and engineer. "The regional, if not the national economy, cannot afford any longer than that."

The likely first step will be making sure that the Dali, the nearly 1,000-foot container ship that smashed into the bridge early Tuesday morning, doesn't do any more damage, according to Captain John Konrad, CEO of gCaptain, a website that tracks the shipping industry.

Before removing the ship, "They'll get a salvage company in to secure the ship and make sure hazardous materials ... [don't leak] from the containers, no fires, that sort of thing," Konrad says.

The next step is removing "the tangled bridge debris," he says. "Then you got to probably drag the bottom again to make sure you don't have any debris that's going to cause a problem."

Von Schmidt says he assumes that the focus will be on "completely clearing the center span so that there's no restriction in navigation, because right now with that debris, it's restricted navigation."

That means moving in large floating cranes and sending down divers, he says. But first survey boats will need to "map out a grid of the bottom to find where all the debris is" and make a plan for removal, he says.

That means scanning the bottom, Konrad says. "Right now, the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers is running a couple sonar boats to get a general idea," he says. "That's going to take time. And once they do that, they're going to have to send divers down with welding, cutting torches, cut sections out, and then they're going to have to bring in a crane barge."

Removing debris could be done in stages to speed up the process, Von Schmidt says. "They might open the channel up in phases specific to the displacement of the vessels," he says. So, shallower draft vessels would be allowed to transit before the deeper draft ones that could snag debris on the bottom.

How long will all that take? "It's weeks and months to remove the debris and reopen the shipping channel," Benjamin Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told member station WYPR. "I'd be shocked if it's weeks, but I don't think it'd take a year."

Von Schmidt is a bit more optimistic about a timeframe. "What level of traffic? That remains to be seen," he says. "I think it's very possible that traffic moves in two plus weeks. Possibly, he says, "it'll be wide open for traffic shortly after that."

For the latest from member station WYPR in Baltimore head to wypr.org

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

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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