Workers Set Off Explosives to Free Ship from Fallen Baltimore Bridge

Wesley Lapointe for The Washington Post
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Shannon N. Gilreath, right, speaks to members of the media about precision cutting and safety procedures, while Maryland Gov. Wes Moore listens.

Seven weeks after a cargo ship was first trapped under a portion of the Baltimore bridge it destroyed in March, a salvage crew detonated a cluster of tiny explosives Monday evening to free it.

There was a loud burst of dozens of coordinated blasts that broke apart the towering truss of the Francis Scott Key Bridge known as Section Four, which had fallen across the bow of the container ship Dali.

The small explosions blew apart the vast steel structure jutting from the water, sending pieces splashing down as black smoke rose beside the ship, which is resting against the muddy Patapsco River bed.

For days, salvage workers have been slicing openings in steel beams scrawled with spray-painted numbers to hold the miniature explosives. Authorities said it was the fastest and safest way to dismantle the huge piece of the bridge and push the remnants away from the ship.

“It looked like a success,” said Kurt Rauschenberg, spokesman for the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He added, “That starts the clock for removing the ship from the federal channel.” Teams will do an assessment of how the steel debris fell and use sonar to chart underwater debris, he said. They will also check for any charges that failed to explode.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Shannon N. Gilreath, one of the leaders of the Unified Command overseeing the bridge response, said Monday that the Dali’s crew would stay on the ship during the explosions, in case of fire or other emergency. They were below deck, toward the back of the ship, and separated from the small blasts by towering stacks of containers on the ship, Gilreath said.

The Dali stopped in Oman, Malaysia, China and South Korea earlier this year. It passed through the Panama Canal on March 13, then slipped into the Port of Baltimore 10 days later, another seemingly mundane cog of global commerce. After 1 a.m. on March 26, the Dali lost power and veered off course, destroying the bridge and then getting entangled in the wreckage it had wrought.

Authorities said they are preparing for the Dali to make an imminent trip back to shore in the Port of Baltimore. On Monday, Gilreath said it will be moved out in about two days.

Since the blasts could leave dismantled hunks of the bridge in the water beside the Dali, safety experts will “have to determine that stuff is not in the way and it’s safe to move the ship,” said Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for Synergy Marine, which operates the vessel.

Tug boats will guide the Dali to a dock in the Port of Baltimore, Wilson said. And for the foreseeable future, the crew will stay on board, he said.

“It’s not out at sea, but it’s still a … living piece of equipment. It still needs to be looked after and cared for,” Wilson said, adding that crew members are also part of ongoing investigations into the collision.

The containers will stay on board for a time even after the Dali is docked, and needed ship repairs will be on hold until investigators clear any such work, Wilson said. Logistics for the repairs will be settled after approvals from the Coast Guard and others, he said.

David O’Connell, the Coast Guard captain of the Port of Baltimore, said the Dali will be taken to the Seagirt Marine Terminal, where it will stay for four to six weeks. There, a collapsed stretch of roadway still strewn atop the ship, and other debris, will be removed, he said. The ship will eventually head to Norfolk, for more permanent repairs, he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, Coast Guard and FBI all have ongoing investigations into the destruction of the bridge. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) said Monday that his administration has been in close contact with the FBI and other federal investigators, as well as Maryland’s attorney general. “We know that those who need to be held responsible for this tragedy will be held responsible,” Moore said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday that an exhaustive NTSB investigation is expected to not only detail what went wrong on the Dali before it headed off course, but also shed light on safety features meant to protect bridges. “We expect there’s going to be standards that will come out of the NTSB investigation that will be used to retrofit current bridges,” Cardin said, in addition to standards for future bridges.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former House speaker whose family has deep ties to Baltimore, said Monday that the investigators’ emphasis on ships is critical. While barriers meant to protect bridge piers are important, “if the ships are better prepared to know when they’re going to lose energy, that is a precaution for the bridges as well,” she said.

Wesley Lapointe for The Washington Post
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) speaks to the media about congressional infrastructure funding on Monday.

As the Coast Guard, other federal and state agencies and their contractors push to fully reopen the shipping channel by the end of May, getting the Dali out of the way has been a top target.

Workers in fluorescent safety suits wielding high-powered torches have been cutting the bridge apart, piece by piece, for weeks. The intricate preparations for the barrage of small explosions were geared toward worker safety. The collision in March killed six workers on the bridge who were there to repair potholes, and authorities have repeatedly said avoiding any other deaths or injuries is their top priority.

In recent days, Moore has pointed to the complexity and sheer scale of the endeavor.

“We’re talking about a massive piece of steel – and on one end, the steel is leaning against a vessel that is the size of the Eiffel Tower,” Moore said.

Preparing to rid the Dali of the mangled mass of steel from the bridge included the use of a half-dozen inclinometers, which measure the tilt of key spots on the ship and bridge, and strain gauges, which track real-time physical stresses and slippage at the disaster scene, authorities said.

Salvage workers will continue using a large hydraulic grabber and other equipment to clear the main shipping channel, authorities said.

Colonel Estee S. Pinchasin, district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore District, said the operation marked a milestone in the clearing of the channel.

“You saw the wreckage fall off. If you look at the before picture, it was a tremendous span that was sitting on top of the vessel, pinning it in place,” Pinchasin said. Now the span appears to be disconnected from the ship, she said, though chunks of steel remain on top of it and crews need to see what’s going on under the water.

“We’re gonna assess the wreckage sitting on top of the Dali and still leaning in the water,” she added, and do whatever additional work is needed so crews will have a “clear shot” to get the Dali ready for moving to the port.