Just hours before high tide, when officials planned to start refloating the enormous container ship that toppled the Francis Scott Key Bridge and restricted maritime traffic for two months, the longshoremen of Local 333 were dancing to vintage Jackson 5 tunes and slurping water ice.

Eight weeks of angst had ended, and it might as well finish with a party. The longshoremen were going back to work, at long last. For many, the two months without their regular paychecks meant a loss of thousands of dollars. Rent and mortgage payments were late, and families that relied on these workers for help didn’t get it. Vacations weren’t taken; savings accounts didn’t grow. No one had planned for any of it; how could they?

“I cut back on all of my expenses. Absolutely. I tightened it up,” said longshoreman Tulani Hasan, 43, whose last job was loading the Dali, the massive container ship. “We had to live on our savings and do what we had to do to supplement that.”

Tulani Hasan, longshoreman with Union 333, talks with union President Scott Cowan. (Gail Burton / For The Baltimore Banner)

The Dali crashed into the Key Bridge on March 26, killing six men who were working on a resurfacing project. The ensuing days became a recovery operation to find the bodies, return them to families for burial and then clear pieces of a bridge and an interstate highway from the Patapsco River. Refloating the Dali, which rests in the shipping channel, is one of the final steps in this operation. Once the Dali safely reaches Seagirt Marine Terminal, the Unified Command running the Key Bridge operation will restore the port to full operation. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash’s cause but did confirm the ship lost power four times in the hours before it hit the bridge.

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Local 333 includes 1,850 members. The range of pay for longshoremen varies based on seniority, but it’s more than $1,000 a week for many, several said. Many workers went on unemployment, which is only $430 a week. Those who still worked some jobs for the port because of their seniority could supplement their wages through a state fund from the Port Act.

Even those workers, though, took a 75% pay cut, said Scott Cowan, president of Local 333. They will not recoup those wages, he said, but it appears many of the regular ships are coming back, so he hopes they can at least stay busy. By the end of May, the channel is set to open to 50 feet instead of the current 35, and that will bring back the biggest ships with the most work.

“People here live on what they make. Nobody expects a bridge to go down immediately,” he said. “It was like flicking a light switch. Work just stops.”

One-year-old Elmira Natan is pulled in a wagon during a festival for Union 333 longshoremen Sunday. Elmira’s parents are both longshoremen. (Gail Burton / For The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore’s port is one of the nation’s largest and busiest. The closure of maritime traffic affected about $2 million in wages every day, according to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. In 2023, the port handled more than 50 million tons of foreign cargo worth $80 billion, according to state officials.

State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican who represents the Dundalk and Essex areas, said he worked with Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, to make sure port workers could get $1,000. Being at the picnic, he said, was pure joy — the rain held off, the barbecue was hot and the community finally had something to celebrate. Community businesses donated the food, entertainment and supplies.

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Former Gov. Larry Hogan, who is running for an open seat in the U.S. Senate, stayed at the party for more than an hour, shaking hands with Salling and other elected officials and greeting union leadership. Hogan said that, as governor, the Port of Baltimore was his top priority for eight years.

“After this tragedy, I think people began to realize what an important part of a driver of our economy the port is. I’ve recognized that for a long time, and I’ve had a long-standing relationship with the organization and these guys,” Hogan said.

Former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, talks with Longshoremen Union 333 President Scott Cowan. (Gail Burton / For The Baltimore Banner)

Every member of Local 333, no matter the gender, is called a longshoreman. Women are increasing in the ranks, but still it’s mostly men. They approached Hogan, many with tattoos visible on arms and legs and in T-shirts with messages, and shook his hand or pulled him in for a squeeze or a selfie.

Longshoremen unload and load ships all day and are a close-knit, keep-to-themselves group. Many at the party declined to speak on the record but acknowledged the last few weeks had been hard. They missed colleagues as well as their paychecks.

Hasan’s last ship was the Dali. She finished what she assumed was a regular shift. A couple of hours later, the bridge collapsed. Heartbreaking as it was, she said, she’s more than ready to return to the docks.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I’m ready to get back in that truck and get going.”