Crane operators remained ready Wednesday to begin lifting undamaged containers off the disabled cargo ship Dali but were held back by thunderstorms and high winds which made operating the machinery unsafe.

Removing uncompromised containers from the Dali’s bow is the first step in extricating the ship from the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The twisted monstrosity has effectively shut down the Port of Baltimore indefinitely. The 984-foot Dali lost propulsion and steerage and went adrift in the early morning hours of March 26, ramming one of two footings of the bridge, causing it to collapse in seconds.

The removal of the Dali from the middle of the shipping channel, its deepest and most important part, is critical to clearing the channel and remained the top priority of the Unified Command, the name given to the combined groups involved in the salvage operation.

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“We are staged to begin lifting the first of those undamaged containers off the bow of the ship,” said U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Shannon Gilreath, among the officials who spoke to media near the bridge.

Removing the containers, Gilreath said, will “give us space to safely operate, to begin to plan to remove portions of the bridge that are also now embedded in the ship. But we need a weather window to do that. We’re staged and ready to go, we just need a break in the weather.”

Gilreath confirmed the 21 members of the Dali crew remained aboard the ship, and said “we are ensuring they are being supported.”

A gloomy mist clouded the view of the wreckage from shore late Wednesday afternoon as a thunderstorm rolled into the area. Rain also prevented crews from lifting a 350-ton section of the bridge in the north part of what Unified Command is calling the “deep draft channel.” Cranes use friction-braking that could be compromised by water, Gilreath said.

Salvage divers, who do the most critical and dangerous work in the operation, were ordered out of the water because of the threat of lightning.

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Gov. Wes Moore attempted to explain the enormity of their task. Divers are essentially working blind, going by touch and feel as information is relayed to them from the surface by technicians scrutinizing three-dimensional sonar images of the debris.

“This is the best equipment in the market for this type of work,” said Moore, as he reviewed one of the sonar images in front of reporters.

“This is our beloved Key Bridge, this is what it looks like,” Moore said pointing to a rendering of the wreckage. Red lines represented pieces of the truss above the water; a long block of yellow represented what lies on the river bottom.

“When you’re looking at how mangled this wreckage is, how collapsed this wreckage is, it begins to highlight the level and the challenge we have in front of us,” Moore said.

While weather halted the physical work, the technical task of mapping the debris continued.

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Both Moore and Col. Estee Pinchasin of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted to describe the extreme nature of what is being asked of the divers, who can see only a foot or two in front of them.

“It’s cloudy because of the four to five feet of mud, and just the loose bottom of the Patapsco River,” Pinchasen said. “Divers are working basically in darkness, because if we lit it up, it would be like they were driving through a snowstorm with their high beams on.”

A man speaks into a handheld microphone in front of a large television displaying a red and yellow rendering of a collapsed bridge. A large Maryland flag is in the background.
Gov. Wes Moore stands in front of a 3D rendering of the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on April 3, 2024, at the Maryland Transportation Authority Police’s Broening Highway outpost. Crews have been using sonar to map out underwater wreckage — displayed on the screen in yellow — in part due to low visibility under the waters of the Patapsco River. (Daniel Zawodny)

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin emphasized that there would be “no delay” in channeling federal resources to support the salvage efforts. “This is a national priority,” he said. “To the divers, we can’t thank you enough for the courage you have.”

Crews have already cleared two shallow channels on both sides of the main channel, one with a depth of 11 feet, another with a depth of 14 feet.

Gilreath said the types of vessels that have passed through these provisional channels have been empty barges and tugboats. Eight total transits have been completed so far. Opening the temporary channels is a “small step in a long marathon,” Gilreath said.

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Getting larger, deeper-draft vessels into and out of the harbor will require clearing a deeper channel to the north of where the Dali is currently stuck.

“As we get deeper into the channel and clear deeper wreckage from the far side of the channel,” Pinchasen said, “we’re hoping to be able to traffic larger vessels through.”

Potential contamination of the river from the Dali and its cargo remains a concern and something the Maryland Department of the Environment is monitoring, said Deputy Secretary Suzanne Dorsey. Exactly how many containers fell into the water is not known, she said. A boom remains in place in the channel to capture any physical debris from the wreckage.

“We continue to sample to ensure the safety and the health of the Patapsco River,” Dorsey said.

In a written statement, the Department of the Environment confirmed it received results of water sampling taken the day of the incident upriver and downstream of the site. Those results will be used as a baseline going forward.

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Samples were analyzed for substances associated with fuel constituents, including volatile organic compounds. None were detected, according to the statement. Testing will continue indefinitely every few days, as needed.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of Dali crew members that remained aboard the ship.

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