Engineers begin removing Baltimore Key Bridge’s mangled wreckage

<span>Demolition crews cut top portion of the north side of the bridge into smaller sections for safe removal by crane in Baltimore, Maryland, on 30 March 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Kimberly Reaves/US COAST GUARD/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Demolition crews cut top portion of the north side of the bridge into smaller sections for safe removal by crane in Baltimore, Maryland, on 30 March 2024.Photograph: Kimberly Reaves/US COAST GUARD/AFP/Getty Images

Crews of engineers have begun the dangerous and intricate job of removing the mangled wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge from the Patapsco River outside Baltimore, as top federal government and Maryland state officials stressed Sunday that the health of the US national economy depended on it.

Officials took to the political talkshows Sunday to praise the emergency teams that have now amassed in the Patapsco and have started the delicate process of cutting and lifting steel debris from the north side of the destroyed bridge. Wes Moore, the governor of Maryland, said the operation was extremely complex.

Related: As Baltimore bridge cleanup begins, fear of environmental contamination looms

“We have a ship that has nearly the size of the Eiffel Tower that is now stuck within the channel that has the Key Bridge sitting on top of it,” he told CNN’s State of the Union. He added that the bridge collapse, which occurred six days ago when the 985ft cargo ship the Dali lost power and crashed into the structure, was not a local but a national economic catastrophe.

“This port is one of the busiest most active ports inside of the country. This is going to impact the farmer in Kentucky, the auto dealer in Ohio, the restaurant owner in Tennessee,” he said.

Some 15,000 people are estimated to rely on the Port of Baltimore directly for their livelihoods, with a further 140,000 jobs indirectly affected. The port handles the shipping of more cars and light trucks than any other in the US, and it is also a major hub for agricultural equipment.

Last year, more than 1m cargo containers passed through it. That amounted to more than 50m tonnes of foreign cargo, worth about $80bn.

Pete Buttigieg, the US transportation secretary, was unable to give CBS News’s Face the Nation a timeline for the removal of the stricken bridge or for its rebuilding. He noted that the original bridge took about five years to construct, though that was not an indication of how long it will take to replace.

Buttigieg said that it was possible the Biden administration may have to turn to Congress for approval of federal funds, which are expected to meet up to 90% of the costs of recovery. So far only $60m has been provided from an emergency pot held by the Federal Highway Administration.

Asked by CBS News why any skeptical lawmakers should vote for what promises to be a multimillion-dollar project, Buttigieg said: “The pitch is: your district could be next. And this has historically been bipartisan.”

James Clyburn, the influential Democratic congress member from South Carolina, underlined that point on NBC’s Meet the Press. “The fact of the matter is, all of us, every state in the nation, all 50 of us, will take our turns needing this kind of assistance,” he said.

Clyburn added: “It may be gust storms in some places, it may be a flood, or here in this part of the country, hurricanes. We all are subjected at one time or another to some kind of calamity.”

Brandon Scott, the mayor of Baltimore, who is Black, addressed the ugly wave of conservative social media attacks against him since the bridge disaster erupted. He was trolled by a user on X as “Baltimore’s DEI mayor”.

Asked about the abuse on CBS News’s Face the Nation, Scott said that the backlash was coming from those who were “too afraid to use the N-word”. He added: “I am a young Black man, a young Black mayor. I know how racism goes in this country.”

Moore, the state’s Black governor, has also been caught up in the rightwing backlash that has sought to connect the bridge collapse to progressive politics and initiatives promoting the concept of DEI (short for diversity, equity and inclusion), especially after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Phil Lyman, who is running for governor of Utah, posted on social media after the disaster occurred that “this is what happens when you have governors who prioritize diversity over the well-being and security of citizens.”

Unlike Scott, Moore refused to respond to the trolling Sunday. Asked by CNN whether he thought the attacks were racist, he replied: “I have no time for foolishness. I’m making sure we can get closure and comfort to these families … I have no time for foolishness, and so I’m not going to delve into it.”

The rescue operation has been taken up a notch by the arrival on location of a massive crane that can lift 1,000 tonnes, along with six other floating cranes also now at the site of the disaster. According to Associated Press, the clean-up teams also now include 10 tugboats, nine barges and eight salvage vessels.

A top priority of emergency workers is to address the human tragedy of the bridge collapse. Eight construction workers were working on the bridge in the early hours of Tuesday when the disaster happened. Only two of them survived.

The bodies of two workers, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, who were trapped underwater in their vehicle, have been recovered. Four other workers, who are presumed to have died, have yet to be found.

Scott said that a fund set up to help the families of those who died has reached over $300,000. “We will support them throughout this, and that could mean ongoing trauma care in the future,” he said.

Beyond the lives lost, the main structural priority at the site of the collapsed bridge is first to open a channel for smaller boats to be able to enter and exit the port. The main goal of allowing big ships in and out is expected to take much longer.

Recovery operations are being hampered by the murkiness of the water in which the wreckage is partially submerged. Sunken metal beams also increase the perilousness of the work.