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Collapsed Baltimore bridge span comes down with a boom

BALTIMORE — Crews set off a chain of carefully placed explosives Monday to break down the largest remaining span of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, and with a boom and a splash, the mangled steel trusses came crashing down into the river below.

The explosives flashed orange and let off plumes of black smoke upon detonation. The longest trusses toppled away from the grounded Dali container ship and slid off its bow, sending a wall of water splashing back toward the ship.

It marked a major step in freeing the Dali, which has been stuck among the wreckage since it lost power and crashed into one of the bridge's support columns shortly after leaving Baltimore on March 26.

The collapse killed six construction workers and halted most maritime traffic through Baltimore's busy port. The controlled demolition will allow the Dali to be refloated and restore traffic through the port, which will provide relief for thousands of longshoremen, truckers and small business owners who have seen their jobs impacted by the closure.

Officials said the detonation went as planned. They said the next step in the dynamic cleanup process is to assess the few remaining trusses on the Dali's bow and make sure none of the underwater wreckage is preventing the ship from being refloated and moved.

"It's a lot like peeling back an onion," said Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Officials expect to refloat the ship within the next few days. Then three or four tugboats will guide it to a nearby terminal at the port. It will likely remain there for a several weeks and undergo temporary repairs before being moved to a shipyard for more substantial repairs.

"This was a very big milestone for our progression forward," Col. Estee Pinchasin, Baltimore District Commander for the Army Corps of Engineers, said in the immediate aftermath of the demolition. She said crews don't anticipate having to use any more explosives.

The Dali's crew remained on board the ship during the detonation, and no injuries or problems were reported, said Capt. David O'Connell, commander of the Port of Baltimore.

The crew members haven't been allowed to leave the grounded vessel since the disaster. Officials said they've been busy maintaining the ship and assisting investigators. Of the crew members, 20 are from India and one is Sri Lankan.

Engineers spent weeks preparing to use explosives to break down the span, which was an estimated 500 feet (152 meters) long and weighs up to 600 tons (544 metric tons). The demolition was postponed Sunday because of thunderstorms.

"This is a best practice," Gov. Wes Moore said at a news conference Monday, noting that there have been no injuries during the cleanup to date. "Safety in this operation is our top priority."

Fire teams were stationed in the area during the explosion in case of any problematic flying sparks, officials said.

In a videographic released this week, authorities said engineers were using precision cuts to control how the trusses break down. They said the method allows for "surgical precision" and is one of the safest and most efficient ways to remove steel under a high level of tension. Hydraulic grabbers will now lift the broken sections of steel onto barges.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI are conducting investigations into the bridge collapse. Officials have said the safety board investigation will focus on the ship's electrical system.

Danish shipping giant Maersk had chartered the Dali for a planned trip from Baltimore to Sri Lanka, but the ship didn't get far. Its crew sent a mayday call saying they had lost power and had no control of the steering system. Minutes later, the ship rammed into the bridge.

State and federal officials have commended the salvage crews and other members of the cleanup operation who helped recover the remains of the six construction workers. The last body was recovered from the underwater wreckage last week. All of the victims were Latino immigrants who came to the U.S. for job opportunities. They were filling potholes on an overnight shift when the bridge was destroyed.

Officials said the operation remains on track to reopen the port's 50-foot (15-meter) deep draft channel by the end of May. Until then, crews have established a temporary channel that's slightly shallower. Officials said 365 commercial vessels have passed through the port in recent weeks. The port normally processes more cars and farm equipment than any other in the country.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native whose father and brother served as mayor decades ago, compared the Key Bridge disaster to the overnight bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry, which long ago inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812. She said both are a testament to Maryland's resilience.

Pelosi, a Democrat who represents California's 11th district, attended Monday's news conference with two of her relatives. She praised the collective response to the tragedy as various government agencies have come together, working quickly without sacrificing safety.

"Proof through the night that our flag was still there," she said. "That's Baltimore strong."

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press