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11 weeks after Key Bridge collapse, main shipping channel to Port of Baltimore open to commercial ships

Main federal channel to Port of Baltimore fully restored
Main federal channel to Port of Baltimore fully restored 03:27

BALTIMORE - The main passageway for ships to the Port of Baltimore has been fully restored, 11 weeks after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Now, commercial ships can pass through the main shipping channel 24-hours a day.  

On Monday, Unified Command reopened the full-width Ft. McHenry Channel, where the Key Bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River. 

"One of our four key directives in the wake of the Key Bridge collapse has been to fully clear the federal channel," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said. "Today, we bring that directive to completion. By working together, we turned months into weeks – and bounced back faster than many could have ever anticipated."

Port of Baltimore gets lift with main shipping channel reopening 03:19

The 700-foot wide and 50-foot deep channel will allow two-way traffic for large vessels, benefiting the Port of Baltimore, which had suffered drastic economic losses since the bridge collapsed on March 26, killing six construction workers and halting vessel traffic in and out of the port. 

"We are proud of the unified efforts that fully reopened the Federal Channel to port operations," said Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, commanding general of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The partnerships that endured through this response made this pivotal mission successful."

Crews had anticipated reopening the main channel by Monday, and earlier in the day, Col. Estee Pinchasin, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the finishing touches were being made.

How this milestone was accomplished

Fully restoring the Federal Channel to its original width and depth involved the removal of about 50,000 tons of bridge wreckage from the Patapsco River, crews said. 

At its highest point, the Unified Command, consisting of six agencies, led the response efforts among about 56 federal, state, and local agencies, represented by 1,587 individual responders. 

About 500 specialists operated a fleet of 18 barges, 22 tugboats, 13 floating cranes, 10 excavators and four survey boats to assist in the salvage efforts.

"We've cleared the Fort McHenry Federal Channel for safe transit. USACE will maintain this critical waterway as we have for the last 107 years," Pinchasin said. "I cannot overstate how proud I am of our team. It was incredible seeing so many people from different parts of our government, from around our country and all over the world, come together in the Unified Command and accomplish so much in this amount of time."

The wreckage from the Key Bridge will continue to be taken to Sparrows Point for "follow-on processing," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

Continued work in the channel is part of routine maintenance and ensuring future dredging operations will not be impacted, salvage crews said.

"Although the overarching goal to restore full operational capacity to the Federal Channel was successful, each day, we thought of those who lost their lives, their families, and the workers impacted by this tragic event," Pinchasin said. "Not a day went by that we didn't think about all of them, and that kept us going."

Final challenges

Pinchasin, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been there throughout the exhaustive process and spoke one-on-one to WJZ about the final challenges.

"When we started pulling up these pieces, they were enormous—some 50- to 80 feet long of wreckage that was still tied together and mangled," Pinchasin said. "So we knew there were steel members below the mudline that we have to continue to pull out."

The Fort McHenry Federal Channel has been restored to its original operational dimensions of 700 feet wide and 50 feet deep for commercial maritime transit through the Port of Baltimore. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Unified Command video showed the large remaining span of the Key Bridge being removed last week. 

The salvage team then broke up the pieces at Tradepoint Atlantic.

"That's where we're downsizing the material we bring over there, and it's being sold for scrap and recycled," Pinchasin said.

 Unified Command video showed the large remaining span of the Key Bridge being removed last week.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Unified Command spent the past few days days scanning underwater for the last bits of road debris and steel—using sonar, lidar and a magnetometer. 

Main federal channel restored at Key Bridge collapse site U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

"Now to be able to return the channel to its original dimensions gets us one step closer to returning Baltimore on the path to normalcy—especially as they're already talking about the next bridge," Pinchasin said. 

Quick efforts to fully reopen channel

Salvage crews worked around-the-clock to fully reopen the federal channel to the Port of Baltimore.

Here's a look at the quick progress: 

  • March 26: Dali strikes the Key Bridge, causing it to collapse, killing six construction workers.
  • March 30: Removal of bridge wreckage commences.
  • April 2: The first of three Temporary Alternate Channels opened, allowing shallow-draft vessels to transit through the Port of Baltimore.
  • April 7: The removal of containers from M/V Dali began.
  • April 25: The opening of Limited Access Channel to a width of 300 feet and depth of 35 feet.
  • May 9: Recreational vessels permitted to transit through Key Bridge Response Safety Zone.
  • May 13: Controlled demolition of Section 4, which had pinned the M/V Dali under a 10-million-pound segment of Key Bridge wreckage.
  • May 20: M/V Dali refloated and moved, Federal Channel cleared to a width of 400 feet and depth of 50 feet.
  • June 4: The last major piece of steel truss was removed from Federal Channel.

Thoughts with construction workers

Pinchasin's thoughts remain with the six construction workers who lost their lives in the disaster. They were working on the roadway when the cargo ship, the Dali, lost power and crashed into the Key Bridge, knocking them into the water.

Two construction workers were rescued and six were later recovered at the wreckage site.

"Before we even started to think about this, we were handling a human tragedy," Pinchasin said. "We had to recover the missing persons as part of the salvage operations. And that step to me was the most significant achievement, and the whole team was so relieved and thankful to be able to do that."

New data shows devastating impact on the port

New data shows how much business the Port of Baltimore lost because of this disaster. 

According to a Forbes analysis of Census data, exports were down 86% in April 2024 compared to April 2023. Imports were down by 71%. Trade was off by more than $5 billion.

"With the channel now fully open, we can get more Marylanders back to work at the Port of Baltimore, increase the flow of commerce through the city, and accelerate our economic recovery," Moore said. 

For the past several weeks, large ships have been able to access the port, which underwent significant renovations, as the Ports of America Chesapeake president told WJZ last month.    

"We fully anticipate by the middle or end of June, we will have the full contingency of our services back in place," said Mark Schmidt as he expressed confidence in a comeback. 

Rebuilding the Key Bridge

The main objective is figuring out what needs to be done to rebuild a new bridge -- from funding to design.

The Maryland Transportation Authority will host a virtual community meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday on the rebuilding of the Key Bridge. 

You can find information on the meeting here.

"Our work is not over until we rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge," Moore said.   

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