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Full Reopening of Baltimore's Ship Channel Delayed

Contractors work to clear the last wreckage from the federal channel, May 23 (USACE)
Contractors work to clear the last wreckage from the federal channel, May 23 (USACE)

Published May 27, 2024 5:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

The challenging task of removing the final piece of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge will take a bit longer than expected, according to the federal unified command that is managing restoration of the navigation channel. 

Since May 20, merchant ships have been able to take advantage of a channel measuring 50 feet deep and 400 feet wide. This is the typical control depth of the federal channel, and its restoration means that typical vessel traffic can pass through the gap. Even though the damaged boxship Dali has been refloated and removed, the channel is still narrower than before the bridge collapse, because one remaining section of the main span remains embedded in the mud. 

In order to restore the rated width of the channel, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy Supervisor of Diving and Salvage, and a team of commercial contractors are still digging, cutting and hauling to remove steel from the water. 

“We are not taking our foot off the gas,” said Col. Estee S. Pinchasin, USACE, Baltimore District commander. “We are pushing forward as quickly and safely as possible to reach 700 feet and ensuring we remove all wreckage to prevent any impact to future navigation.”

The team still has to pull the bottom chord of the last truss section out of the riverbed. This requires cutting it carefully and safely into three pieces, then hoisting it with a giant crane. About one-third of the truss section is visible in imagery from the scene; the majority is below water, and much of it is embedded in sediment. The current plan is to dig it out of the mud line where needed to make access for scuts, sever it into sections underwater, and rig it for lifting. “This effort is more complex than initially estimated,” Pinchasin said.

Because of the difficulty of this task and the need to perform it with a high level of safety, the team now estimates that the work will take until June 8 at the earliest, and possibly as late as June 10. Initially, the unified command had hoped to fully reopen the federal channel by the beginning of June. 

The narrower channel has not deterred shipping interests from returning to Baltimore. Over the past week, the unified command demobilized its temporary office space in Baltimore's cruise terminal so that passengers could board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Vision of the Seas this weekend. It was the first time that a cruise ship departed the port since the Dali hit and destroyed the Key Bridge in late March. 

"It's excitement, you know, it's a great day for Baltimore, a great day for the community here . . . and we're looking forward to continue cruising out of Baltimore," Capt. Mise Tevsic told local 11 News.