Inside the massive three-step cleanup of Baltimore’s Key Bridge


US President Joe Biden on Friday flew to Baltimore, Maryland, aboard Marine One to inspect the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge that previously spanned the city's industrial port before it was struck by a container ship and collapsed in the early hours of March 26.

The US presidential helicopter Marine One flies above the wreckage of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland; part of the industrial port can be seen in the image, as well as the container ship that caused the collapse
Biden inspected the wreckage from the presidential helicopter Marine One before meeting state and local officialsImage: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/picture alliance

Biden then met with members of the US Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers involved in the effort to remove the wreckage of last week's spectacular collapse to allow access in and out of the Port of Baltimore and reopen one of the country's major shipping lanes.

Currently, more than 50 salvage divers are working to cut sections of the structure apart and 12 cranes are on site to remove them from the channel. 

The president also met with police officers who responded to a distress signal from the ship and rushed to the scene to block traffic, averting more deaths than those of six construction workers killed in the accident. Biden also met with the families of the workers who died.

Authorities said on Friday that rescue dive teams had recovered a third body from the water, that of a 38-year-old from Honduras.

Rescue divers recovered two other bodies from under the debris last week. Three bodies are still yet to be found.

"I'm here to say your nation has your back and I mean it. Your nation has your back," said Biden as he spoke near the site of the wreckage, "The damage is devastating and our hearts are still breaking."

"From the air, I saw the bridge that has been ripped apart," he said, "but here on the ground, I see a community that's pulled together."

President Joe Biden (center) shakes hands with police officers in Baltimore
The president met with police and first responders before a briefing by members of the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of EngineersImage: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/picture alliance

In his remarks, Biden also said, "My administration is committed to ensuring that the parties responsible for the Baltimore bridge collapse pay to repair the damage." 

Flanked by state and city officials, Biden promised, "We're gonna move heaven and earth to rebuild this bridge as rapidly as humanly possible. And we're going to do so with union labor and American steel."

Officials say they hope to restore normal ship movement by May 31, according to the White House. 

More than $200 million (€184 million) worth of cargo usually moves through the port — a major hub for the import and export of vehicles — each day, making its swift reopening of key importance to the US economy.

Some experts have estimated that reconstruction could take at least 18 months and cost upwards of $400 million.

Biden has promised that the federal government will cover the cost of recovery and Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said likewise.

However, such funding is not guaranteed, with Republicans in the House of Representatives suggesting they will demand spending cuts elsewhere and the suspension of environmental and endangered species laws before agreeing to foot the bill. Republicans hold a slight majority in the House. 

A statement issued by the Republican House Freedom Caucus on Friday said, "If it proves necessary to appropriate taxpayer money to get one of America's busiest ports back online, Congress should ensure it is fully offset and that burdensome regulations" are waved.

President Joe Biden got a firsthand look Friday at efforts to clear away the “mangled mess” of remains of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, as cranes, ships, and diving crews work to reopen one of the nation’s main shipping lanes.

Aboard Marine One, circling the warped metal remains and the mass of construction and salvage equipment trying to clear the wreckage of last week’s collapse, which killed six workers, Biden got an up-close view of the devastation.

On the ground later, he received a briefing from local officials, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers on the situation in the water and its impacts on the region. The president also greeted police officers who helped block traffic to the bridge in the moments before it was hit by a ship — which helped avert an even larger loss of life.

“I’m here to say your nation has your back and I mean it,” Biden said from the shoreline overlooking the collapsed bridge in Dundalk, just outside Baltimore. “Your nation has your back.”

Eight workers — immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — were filling potholes on the bridge when it was hit by a huge cargo ship and collapsed in the middle of the night of March 26. Two men were rescued and the bodies of two others were recovered in subsequent days.

Authorities announced Friday evening that salvage divers had recovered, in the hours before Biden arrived, a third body from the water, that of Maynor Yasir Suazo-Sandoval, 38, one of the missing workers. They said the search for the other victims will continue.

The president also met for more than an hour with the families of those killed.

“The damage is devastating and our hearts are still breaking,” Biden said.

Officials have established a temporary, alternate channel for vessels involved in clearing debris. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to open a limited-access channel for barge container ships and some vessels moving cars and farm equipment by the end of this month, and to restore normal capacity to Baltimore’s port by May 31, the White House says.

That’s important since longer delays in reopening shipping lanes could send shockwaves through the economy. As much as $200 million in cargo normally moves through Baltimore’s port per day, and it is the leading hub for importing and exporting vehicles.

More than 50 salvage divers and 12 cranes are on site to help cut out sections of the bridge and remove them from the key waterway. Officials told Biden they had all the resources they needed to meet the targets for opening the channel into the Baltimore port.

The president announced that some of the largest employers affected by the collapse, including Amazon, Home Depot, and Domino Sugar, have committed to keeping their employees on payroll until the port is reopened. That followed days of outreach by state and federal officials to try to mitigate the economic impact.

“From the air, I saw the bridge that has been ripped apart,” Biden said, “but here on the ground, I see a community that’s pulled together.”

It is still unclear, though, how the costs of cleanup and building a new bridge will be covered.

The Federal Highway Administration has provided $60 million in “quick release” emergency relief funds to get started. Exactly how much the collapse will ultimately cost is unclear, though some experts estimate recovery will take at least $400 million and 18 months.

Biden said within hours of the collapse that “the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect the Congress to support my effort.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell likened the bridge collapse to assistance that flows after natural disasters and said” The federal government will step up and do the lion’s share” of funding. But authorization could cause some squabbles in Congress.

The White House is asking lawmakers to authorize the federal government to cover 100% of the collapsed bridge cleanup and reconstruction costs, rather than seeking funding through a separate, emergency supplemental funding request.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young noted similar techniques were used for recovery and rebuilding efforts that received bipartisan congressional support in 2007, when a highway bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed during evening rush hour, killing 13 people.

But some hard-line congressional Republicans are already lining up to demand politically controversial offsets for the funding. The conservative House Freedom Caucus issued a statement saying, “If it proves necessary to appropriate taxpayer money to get one of America’s busiest ports back online, Congress should ensure it is fully offset and that burdensome regulations” are waved. It was referring to potential federal spending cuts elsewhere and to regulations like the Endangered Species Act.

The caucus’s letter also suggested that approval for bridge recovery funds be tied to the Biden administration agreeing to lift a pause it has imposed on the exportation of liquified natural gas.

The funding questions only serve to heighten the collapse’s political implications as Biden squares off with former President Donald Trump in November’s election.

It’s the second major disaster along the country’s busy northeastern hub in as many years. Last summer, an overpass along Interstate 95 in Philadelphia caught fire and collapsed after a tanker truck slammed into it. Federal and state officials moved quickly on temporary repairs and ultimately reopened that section of the highway faster than expected.

But the cleanup and repairs in Baltimore will take far longer and be far more costly, making the chances it is a net political positive for Biden — especially in time for Election Day — far murkier. That hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from championing anew a $1 trillion-plus public works package that cleared Congress in 2021.

The bridge collapse also has thrust into the national spotlight Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, 45, a leading voice in Biden’s reelection campaign’s effort to energize young voters on the 81-year-old president’s behalf. The governor accompanied Biden on the helicopter tour and during his briefings.

Biden has traveled the country showcasing construction projects on highways, bridges, and tunnels. In 2022, he arrived for an event in Pittsburgh just hours after a bridge nearby collapsed. Promoting the public works package also has allowed the president to lean into his love of train travel and many years commuting to and from Washington on Amtrak as a Delaware senator.

Biden said Friday that he’d been over the bridge “about a thousand times” commuting from Washington to his home in Delaware, prompting the state Department of Transportation chief to quip, “Thank you for the tolls, sir.”

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