One of the cranes clearing the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was originally built for a secret operation to pull up a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the ocean floor.

It goes by the name Chesapeake 1000, and is one of the largest cranes on the East Coast, capable of lifting 1,000 tons, or 2 million pounds. It’s joined the massive effort to lift and move portions of the 1.6-mile bridge after the Dali cargo ship sent it toppling into the Patapsco River last week, killing six people and cutting off one of America’s major ports.

But 56 years ago, the crane went by a different name and was created as part of an operation unlike anything ever attempted. It was called Sun 800, and its purpose was to serve the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the Cold War, the Engineering News-Record reported in 2017.

It started with a six-year secret mission called Project Azorian, according to Smithsonian Magazine. A Soviet ballistic missile submarine, called K-129, had gone missing in the Pacific Ocean. The Soviets suspected Americans were responsible, while other reports blamed mechanical errors. The Soviets gave up on the search after two months, but Americans found it 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii and 16,500 feet — more than 3 miles — underwater.

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The CIA commissioned the construction of a ship to recover the nearly 4-million-pound submarine. It would use a method similar to a classic arcade game, pulling it up with a giant claw, Smithsonian reported in 2019.

“If the United States could get its hands on the Soviet submarine’s code books and machines, the nuclear weapons, the strategic plans, and … well, it was just plain too good to be true,” said a CIA report.

The U.S. feared being charged with piracy if the Soviets found out about the salvaging plans. They needed a cover story. In came billionaire Howard Hughes, an American manufacturer, aviator, movie producer and director. He put his name on the 618-foot ship that was going to retrieve the submarine, leading people to believe the billionaire paid for it himself. There was even a fake press release celebrating the USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer and christening ceremony in 1972.

“Evidently, the public and press chalked the mystery up to Hughes’ reputation as a recluse, such a loner that he was said to eschew even his own company’s board meetings,” the Smithsonian Magazine article said.

The CIA chose Global Marine to design and build the Hughes Glomar Explorer with subcontractor Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Chester, Pennsylvania. According to the trade publication The Maritime Executive, Sun Shipbuilding built a crane capable of carrying 800 tons to install heavy components on the Hughes Glomar Explorer. That was the Sun 800.

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“The Sun 800 wasn’t along for this deep-sea mission, but played an essential role in making it happen,” The Maritime Executive reported this week.

The Glomar Explorer was able to recover about a third of the Soviet submarine and the bodies of more than 70 crew members, the Engineering News-Record reported. However, it failed to raise the missiles or the code room. The lifting apparatus broke 9,000 feet down and most of the submarine fell back on the ocean floor.

Donjon Marine Co. in New Jersey bought the Sun 800 in 1993, the Engineering News-Record reported, and increased its capacity to 1,000 tons, hence its new name, Chesapeake 1000 — or “Chessy” for short.

Donjon Marine did not return a request for comment. Its website states the crane’s derrick, or lifting device, is all steel.

That’s one reason the half-century-old piece is still in good shape to clean up the Key Bridge wreckage, according to Ben Schafer, a civil and systems engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University.

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“Steel may be used indefinitely if it is not stressed past certain levels,” wrote Schafer in an email. “The first steel buildings were built in the 1890s and steel bridges before that.” With the right care, he said, there’s no reason steel can’t be used for many years.

The Chesapeake 1000′s missions under new ownership included a $500 million project at Rockefeller University in New York City, the New York Times reported in 2016. That involved placing 19 metal structures onto three columns over a highway, with some of the heaviest metal weighing 1.5 million pounds. Officials called it a challenging project.

Baltimore’s Key Bridge weighs 3,000 to 4,000 tons. The Chesapeake 1000 will have to work like a seesaw to pick up bridge pieces out of the water, said Tom Leslie, an architecture professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. While it picks up heavy materials it’s going to need to be balanced so it doesn’t tip over.

“They [cranes] can be really strong if they’re treated well and everything is balanced,” he said. “If you load them the wrong way, they can collapse.”

The Chesapeake 1000 arrived at the scene Friday, and the first section of the bridge has since been removed. Once removed, officials said it will head to Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point, and then be hauled away.

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