President Biden Visits Baltimore to Survey Bridge Collapse Site

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
Workers dismantle the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

DUNDALK, Md. – President Biden flew over the scene of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore on Friday, surveying the wreckage as the recovery enters a pivotal new phase, 10 days after a massive container ship plowed into the span and brought it down in a jumble of twisted steel and concrete.

Biden pledged federal support “every step of the way” in a speech afterward, promising “your nation has your back” and pressing Congress to fund the cost of rebuilding the 1.6-mile bridge, which could total more than $1 billion. Officials announced plans to fully reopen the crippled Port of Baltimore by the end of May, setting a hard target for the first time.

“We’re going to move heaven and earth to rebuild this bridge as rapidly as humanly possible,” Biden said, speaking on the bank of the Patapsco River with the fallen bridge as a backdrop. “We will do so with union labor and American steel.”

Biden, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) and other officials leading the cleanup did two loops around the disaster site in the Marine One helicopter on Friday, before the president met with first responders and with the families of the six construction workers who perished when the bridge plunged into Patapsco on March 26.

In the days since, recovery efforts have ground forward amid pelting rain and icy winds, but the tentative timeline adds a fresh urgency and political peril for Biden and state officials to clean up what one analysis said could eventually be the most expensive disaster in maritime history. Some Republicans have already signaled they have qualms about Biden’s funding plan, saying money should be recovered from the shipping companies involved before public dollars flow.

This week, two small channels opened to allow tugboat and barge traffic in and out of the port. Officials plan to open a larger one by the end of April that can accommodate some ships carrying cars and farm equipment that are key cargo at the port.

Aid has begun to flow to stem the economic pain caused by the port’s closure to shipping traffic. The U.S. Department of Transportation also announced Friday that a previously awarded $8 million grant can be used to expand cargo capacity at Tradepoint Atlantic, a port facility in Baltimore unaffected by the bridge collapse. Federal officials opened two offices this week to help small businesses get low interest loans. The Biden administration allocated $60 million in emergency relief funds last week.

Moore said in a speech introducing Biden on Friday that the state has launched a new initiative called “Maryland Tough, Baltimore Strong Alliance” that has raised $15 million to help Baltimore workers. Some of the private businesses involved – including Amazon, Domino Sugar and Home Depot – are pledging not to lay off workers affected by the port closure and return to the Port of Baltimore if they have to temporarily leave. Two-thirds of that sum came from the city’s sports teams: the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles.

Moore cast the partnership and the progress so far as evidence of the state’s tough character, a slogan he’s put on T-shirts.

“Baltimore has been tested before. We get knocked down,” Moore said. “We stand back up and we dust ourselves off and we move forward. That is what we do.”

Another key goal for responders has been recovering the bodies of four construction workers, who for 10 days have been missing and presumed buried in the rubble of the bridge 50-feet below the surface of the river. Authorities said late Friday the body of Maynor Suazo Sandoval, 38, was recovered.

Biden said one of the victims, a 24-year-old construction worker he identified only as Carlos, left a message for his girlfriend just seconds before the collapse saying they were waiting for some concrete to dry. He was part of a crew fixing potholes.

Biden pledged crews would locate the bodies and rebuild the bridge, saying “we will not rest, as Carlos said, until the cement is dry.”

He said his father was born and raised in Baltimore, and that his family’s ties to the area go back generations to watermen who worked the Chesapeake Bay in the 1850s. He pronounces the city’s name “Bawlmore,” like locals do.

The visit comes as his administration sent a letter Friday formally requesting that Congress allocate funds to pay for the entire cost of rebuilding a new span.

“The Federal Government should cover any needed costs for reconstructing the bridge,” Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. “While we continue to assess those costs alongside our Federal and State partners, we are asking the Congress to join us in demonstrating our commitment to aid in recovery efforts by authorizing a 100 percent Federal cost share for rebuilding the bridge.”

The disaster has idled shipping at the Port of Baltimore and spread economic pain locally and nationally.

Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. (D) grew up in the community on the north end of the bridge and said “this has been one of our darkest times.”

“To have your president standing in your community, having the chance to stand alongside him, and hearing him say, ‘I’ll have your back’? To have him already committed resources, to have his team constantly be on the ground and reinforcing point? The right word is ‘relief.’ It’s just such a relief,” Olszweski said after the event. “People are reeling in so many ways. People have lost loved ones. There are people who are facing an uncertain future. And we’ve got the leader of the free world, in your neighborhood saying, ‘I got you.’ It means a lot.”

Officials said this week that tests have shown no pollution in the waters surrounding the stranded 985-foot Dali container ship; they are working to move a 350-ton section of bridge and will begin lifting cargo containers from the vessel in the coming days.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. John P. Lloyd said on a boat tour of the wreckage Thursday that conditions have been challenging, particularly for divers surveying and cutting up the wreckage 50 feet below the surface.

“It’s a very complex environment for the divers,” Lloyd said. “They are underwater, walking along the channel in the debris with almost zero visibility.”

Moore said Friday morning that “the state is still mourning” during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” continuing to press his case that the catastrophe in Baltimore should be a nationwide concern.

The first call from the White House came within 90 minutes of the bridge collapse, Moore said, praising the consistency in help from the Biden administration, which has “continued to walk this path with us.”

Biden’s formal request to have Congress approve to pay for the total bridge replacement accelerates a lobbying effort already underway on Capitol Hill.

Moore plans to be personally involved; he will visit Tuesday to begin that process in person, meeting with Maryland’s 10-member congressional delegation and Young, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

The House Freedom Caucus, in a statement Friday morning, expressed reservations about Biden’s plan for rebuilding the bridge.

In an “official position” posted on X, the influential group of conservatives conditioned approval of bridge funding on several factors, including extinguishing all existing federal funds first, securing “maximum liability” from the shipping company up front and tying the negotiation for bridge money to Biden’s policies on liquefied natural gas terminals.

The group has also opposed the last three supplemental spending initiatives for disasters, but all three passed with bipartisan support anyway.

“If it proves necessary to appropriate taxpayer money to get one of America’s busiest ports back online,” the group stated, “Congress should ensure it is fully offset and that burdensome regulations … are waived to avoid all unnecessary delays and costs.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who is from Baltimore, addressed concerns Thursday and vowed to “hold all responsible people fully accountable.”

“We know there’s some who people say, ‘Well, isn’t there a third party liabilities, isn’t there insurance?’” he said during a daily news briefing. “We’re not going to delay opening our channel or rebuilding our bridge with the lengthy process that may take.”

Attorneys for the companies that own and manage the Dali have asserted in federal court legal filings they were not to blame for what happened. They asked a judge to excuse them from any liability for the disaster or, alternately, cap damages at $43 million, the cost of the vessel minus damage and salvage.

A Morningstar analysis found insurance companies could ultimately pay out $2 to $4 billion for damage and economic fallout from the bridge collapse, which could top the costs for the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship.