Cranes, barges and salvagers are on their way to Baltimore as the mission to clean up wreckage from the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse gets underway.

Buoyed by a $60 million commitment from President Joe Biden’s administration, the cleanup mission ramped up Friday with the arrival of one of the largest cranes on the East Coast. The operation will be expensive, long and complicated — and it will require complex machinery, highly skilled workers and, likely, more money.

State authorities believe human remains are trapped amid the rubble, and the Port of Baltimore is partially shut down until the shipping channel can be cleared.

A crane called the Chesapeake 1000 is among the most visible signs of progress. It can lift 1,000 tons, but the Key Bridge, which is on top of the freighter, weighs 3,000 to 4,000 tons, Gov. Wes Moore said at a press conference Friday afternoon. The salvage team needs to cut the truss into sections safely before it can lift those pieces out of the water.

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The Chesapeake 1000 crane, center, is dwarfed by the freighter Dali, which remains buried under the wreckage of the Key Bridge. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“This crane that we’re looking at is massive,” Moore said. “So is the challenge ahead of us.”

In the coming weeks, he said, officials expect to have in the water seven floating cranes, 10 tugboats, nine barges, eight salvage vessels and five Coast Guard ships.

Col. Estee S. Pinchasin, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, said Friday it’s too early to give a timeline, but she urged everyone to trust the careful engineering process underway.

”It’s going to be this iterative process of lifting and reassessing, making sure that it’s stable, making sure that what we’re going to send folks down to observe and confirm it is safe for them to handle, and then we’re going to take it very methodically,” she said.

Investing the time it takes to do this correctly, she said, will allow them to move faster later.

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“Together with the salvage community and the unified command, I think we’re on the right course to do this as quickly as possible,” Pinchasin said.

The operation will likely require more than the initial $60 million in federal aid, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said earlier this week. That funding will cover demolition, traffic operation, construction and debris recovery.

Biden has indicated the federal government will cover the costs associated with Tuesday’s disaster, which killed as many as six construction workers who were paving potholes when the container ship Dali sent its mayday signal and crashed into a bridge pylon. Two other workers were rescued and survived.

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It’s unknown what the full cost of rebuilding will amount to or how long the project will take. The rubble has to be dealt with first.

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H. Allen Black, who heads the maritime practice at Mills Black LLP, said a successful salvage operation will balance clearing the ship and the bridge segments with restoring navigation in and out of the port. That could require dredging, the removal of sediment and debris from the bottom of the water.

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“You need to get talented people with the right training, the right skill set, together,” said Black, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer who noted that those people will have to be called in. “And it’s not like they’re standing by in a firehouse, waiting to come down.”

It’s not clear if all the necessary equipment to clear the site will be readily available within the U.S., he added.

“It’s all about the equipment,” he said. “The more robust and bigger the equipment, the faster it’ll go.”

The Dali will need to be extracted from the wreckage, Black said, and docked for repairs. Crews may bring in what’s known as a “jackup vessel,” he said, a rig that resembles a barge but has big, steel legs at the corners that can be lowered to raise the ship. “It provides a very stable platform for doing recovery work,” Black said.

Black said the process may not follow that exact sequence, though, and it could move faster with support from the federal government.

On Thursday evening, Moore said to expect the work to take time. He recalled the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2022, which took five weeks to dislodge. The Dali container ship is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower, Moore said, and has the Key Bridge on top of it.

The cargo ship Dali ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it’s providing sonar, safety inspectors, debris removal vessels, and hydrographic and topographic survey vessels, which assess the physical features of water and land. It also pledged to cover the “full cost” of the salvage effort.

Representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard said barges and cranes are on their way. The U.S. Navy is sending barges and other vessels, too.

Petty Officer Kimberly Reaves of the U.S. Coast Guard told The Banner that the cleanup crew is split among agencies and organizations: the Corps of Engineers, the Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving and the Maryland Transportation Authority. Several contractors have been called in.

Reaves said crew members are “trying to go as fast and as safe as possible.”

Officials and experts are also keeping an eye on environmental impacts of the cleanup operation. Reeves said the Coast Guard has placed 2,400 feet of “boom,” a type of border, around the ship to try to contain hazardous materials.

Larry Sanford, vice president for education at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the weak current in the harbor and the low tides in the shipping channel may help limit damage to the environment.

“The current that goes through any section of the harbor is pretty weak,” he said.

Removing the debris will cause disturbance to the sediment at the bottom of the harbor, Sanford said, but he said to think of it as dust collecting in the corner of your living room. If the dust is disturbed, the particles will accumulate around the same spot instead of spreading to the rest of the room.

“When you get strong winds, then things can change,” he said.

K.N. Gunalan, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, compared it to bridge replacements. Once the old bridge is demolished, a net is brought in so none of the wreckage spreads. The clearing takes only a few hours.

But the Dali crash was not planned, which makes it hard to assess everything that needs to be done. If he had to guess, Gunalan said, the Key Bridge cleanup could be two to three months.

“I’m sure they’ll plan to … look at the navigational section of the channel and probably plan to remove that so that they can keep the port functioning,” he said.

An extra layer of care is needed in this case given that officials are trying to recover the bodies of the men who were on the bridge when it collapsed. They wouldn’t want to “do any more damage than already has been done.”

The Costa Concordia cruise ship struck a rock formation off the coast of Italy in 2012. It took more than two years for the ship to be refloated and towed. (Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Though not an exact comparison, the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship may offer a blueprint for the scope and scale of the Key Bridge salvage operation.

The cruise ship struck a rock formation off the coast of Italy, tilted off center and partially sank. It took more than two years for the ship to be refloated and towed.

It’s the most expensive salvage in history, said Charles L. Simmons, partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Baltimore. The Key Bridge operation seems less complicated because of its location and material type, he said.

“Plus, the Concordia wasn’t blocking the 17th-most-active port in the country,” Simmons said.

Liz Bowie contributed to this story.

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