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The massive effort to clear the waterway in Baltimore


A floating crane pulled the largest piece of Baltimore's ruined Key Bridge out of the Patapsco River on Sunday. It's a mammoth undertaking where engineering teams are racing to reopen one of the nation's busiest ports. And it's sensitive, too. The bodies of two men are still in that wreckage. WYPR's Emily Hofstaedter takes us to the scene.

EMILY HOFSTAEDTER, BYLINE: A small mountain of steel scraps sits on a pier a little over a mile from where the bridge once stood. James Harkness, the chief engineer with the Maryland Transportation Authority, says those were once pieces of the Key Bridge.

JAMES HARKNESS: This is our processing yard, where all the materials that are removed from the river are brought by barge and crane to this site - very large pieces of material, steel trusses, some 70 feet by 40 feet.

HOFSTAEDTER: The bridge collapsed in late March when a cargo ship struck a support of pylon. Six construction workers filling potholes on the bridge were killed. The Port of Baltimore cannot be fully reopened until the wreckage is moved. A few hundred yards behind Harkness is a 450-ton piece of steel truss from the Key Bridge, the largest piece removed from the water so far.

HARKNESS: When they brought it in yesterday, they actually had to cut it in half because it was about 90 feet tall. So in order to make it manageable for the crews working in the processing yard, they cut it down into half. So the two pieces you see were brought in as one large piece and cut down.

HOFSTAEDTER: That piece, roughly the size of a nine-story building, was suspended from a crane and floated over a mile down the river to be processed. A welder uses a torch to cut pieces off from the base of the truss. The flame melts down the metal and is then instantly cooled by oxygen, creating a perfect slice in the steel frame. That piece, now freed from the rest of the truss, is grabbed by a set of pinchers like a giant set of kitchen shears and cut down even further.


HOFSTAEDTER: Sharon Russell with the Coast Guard gazes out over the machines moving through fields of scraps.

SHARON RUSSELL: It looks to me almost like a dinosaur. It's so bizarre. But it's cutting them into pieces that are easier to pick up and move and recycle.

HOFSTAEDTER: Underwater divers have one of the most dangerous jobs on site. Robyn Bianchi leads one of the salvage dive teams.

ROBYN BIANCHI: There's no real visibility down there. I mean, we did get lucky a few days, and we had 3 to 4 feet. But it's all tide dependent. If we have an incoming tide or an outgoing tide, it can stir a lot of that mud up.

HOFSTAEDTER: The divers need to make sure that the floating cranes are lifting what they're actually supposed to. Each crane is weighted for a different amount, so pulling up a section that is too big or heavy could be disastrous. And everyone working on site knows it is an underwater graveyard. They've had to recover the construction workers' bodies as they go.

BIANCHI: That's a concern for the divers. You know, I mean, it's not something that we do often, but salvage divers are prepared for that.

HOFSTAEDTER: The sooner they clear the rubble, the sooner those families can bury their loved ones. Around 1,000 tons of steel have been removed from the Patapsco River so far. Officials are confident that the channel should be fully reopened to normal vessel traffic by the end of May. For NPR News, I'm Emily Hofstaedter in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Hofstaedter
[Copyright 2024 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore]