Less than three months after a massive container ship struck the Key Bridge, sending it collapsing into the Patapsco River and killing six workers, officials shook hands with port workers and celebrated the reopening of the river’s shipping channel on Wednesday — marking the end of a crucial phase of the response to the catastrophe.

“I’ve been waiting to say this for everyday for the past 11 weeks: Maryland, the Fort McHenry channel is fully cleared and the Port of Baltimore is reopened for business,” said Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, flanked by local and federal officials on a pier of the Dundalk Marine Terminal as applause erupted.

Behind them, the Seagirt Marine Terminal brimmed with trucks, cranes and containers. To their left, a small black cloud wafted into the air from the direction of one of the port’s booming coal terminals, once again able to bring barges in for export.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski speaks during a press conference on the full reopening of the Fort McHenry federal channel and the restoration of full services to the Port of Baltimore in Dundalk on June 12, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

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Moore said the response to “one of the most tragic and catastrophic days in our state’s history” has been both swift and impressive in a morning meeting with reporters before Wednesday’s event.

“It was really because of the remarkable work and unified work we saw from all levels of government ... that we’re now able to say that we have rallied and continued to rebound,” said Moore, a Democrat.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, center, and Gov. Wes Moore enter a tent to meet workers involved in the Key Bridge operations in Dundalk on June 12, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called the day a “full circle moment” since his first conversations with Moore “in the literally and figuratively dark hours of that morning,” of March 26. Buttigieg and Tom Perez, director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House, also attended and praised the coordinated recovery effort.

“Can government get hard things done? Look at the last 11 weeks of partnership here getting things done. This is a textbook case study of everybody working together,” Perez said.

White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Director Tom Perez, left, and Maryland Secretary of Transportation Paul Wiedefeld, speak ahead of a press conference on the full reopening of the Fort McHenry federal channel and the restoration of full services to the Port of Baltimore in Dundalk on June 12, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

In the early morning hours of March 26, the Dali, a nearly 1,000-foot container ship bound for Sri Lanka, struck the bridge and sent it collapsing into the river below. Six workers who were part of a crew filling potholes on the bridge died.

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The ship and bridge debris blocked the Patapsco’s shipping channel, which is 50 feet deep and 700 feet wide. That meant a near-total shutdown of shipping activity to and from the Port of Baltimore, a crushing economic blow to thousands of workers and scores of businesses.

“What happened that morning of March 26 was horrific. What happened next was inspiring,” Buttigieg said.

As crews and contractors working for a multiagency Unified Command cleared sections of the bridge wreckage and moved the Dali back to port, temporary channels were opened, allowing limited ship traffic to pass through.

This week, they reached full clearance of the channel, which will enable shipping traffic to resume at full force. Unified Command, made up of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners, removed roughly 50,000 tons of wreckage in total, doing so with no on-the-job injuries, Moore said.

With the channel now open, state officials said they are working with shipping lines to start booking inbound ships from Asia and elsewhere. Ninety-seven vessels are arriving in the coming weeks, and by mid-July, shipping levels should return to where they were before the bridge collapse, said Mark Schmidt, a vice president and general manager for Ports of America in Baltimore.

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The port’s roll-on, roll-off cargo traffic has been coming back, in part by using Tradepoint Atlantic, a private facility outside of the Key Bridge site. Roll-on, roll-off cargo is “close to being back to pre-incident conditions,” a senior transportation official said.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival resumed passenger cruises out of the port’s cruise terminal in late May.

The Port of Baltimore, the businesses that operate within it, its workers and the region have been dealt a $191 million hit every day that the port has been closed, officials with the Maryland Transportation Authority told attendees at an online community meeting Tuesday night. That’s meant lost revenue for shipping companies and missed paychecks for thousands of workers.

Nearly two months after smashing into the Key Bridge, the Dali cargo ship was moved from the wreckage site on the morning of May 20. (Wesley Lapointe/for The Baltimore Banner) (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

In the meantime, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars assisting affected local businesses and workers, much of the money made possible through emergency legislation passed by state lawmakers in the days after the collapse.

Before their remarks Wednesday afternoon, Buttigieg, Moore and other officials went down a line of port workers clad in orange, yellow and pink reflective construction vests shaking hands and giving hugs. One worker wore a T-shirt under his vest that read, “Locust Point soccer club.” As Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Jr. walked the line, they seemed to jokingly argue over whose county was home to more port workers.

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Officials also reiterated their commitment to the families of the six victims of the bridge collapse who died, all of whom were immigrant workers from Latin America. Perez, who helped facilitate a meeting between the families and President Joe Biden, said that they’ve helped bring about 50 family members to the U.S. on temporary visas to help care for loved ones and grieve. Moore said that Maryland will continue to stand with the families and help provide for their needs.

Ahead of Wednesday’s event, Biden released a video on social media commending Moore and the Unified Command for their work.

The video, which appeared to be filmed at the White House, showed Moore, Biden and other officials discussing the work.

“I do think that, given half a chance, there’s nothing that we can’t do,” Biden says in the video, before Moore presents the president a “Maryland Tough, Baltimore Strong” shirt.

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Still, massive work lies ahead to rebuild the fallen bridge and return commuting and trucking patterns through the region.

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The Key Bridge carried Baltimore Beltway traffic over the Patapsco, roughly 35,000 vehicles per day.

Crucially, trucks with hazardous materials were allowed over the bridge, while they are not allowed in the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Harbor Tunnel that go under the river. That’s meant that some truck trips have gotten significantly longer, as drivers navigate through or around the city.

The estimated cost of a new bridge is between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion. Biden pledged that the federal government would pay the full cost, but Congress has yet to sign off on full funding. Typically, a project like this would have 90% federal funding and 10% state funding.

President Joe Biden, right, who visited the Key Bridge collapse site in April, has promised full federal funding to rebuild the bridge. Gov. Wes Moore and Maryland’s members of Congress are continuing to lobby on Capitol Hill to ensure that happens. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Maryland’s members of Congress have sponsored a bill to ensure funding, though it also could be included in another spending bill or piece of legislation.

Moore has taken multiple trips to Capitol Hill and burned up the phone lines calling key members to make the case for funding the bridge. He thanked the state’s federal delegation Wednesday for their own work as Baltimore bridge boosters, including Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who, “as we speak, he is working the Hill.”

“We remain incredibly encouraged by the level of bipartisan report we have received,” Moore said.

State officials expect that between insurance claims and litigation, the cost of the new bridge will ultimately be paid for by those who owned and operated the Dali. The federal funding would pay for the work up front, while those cases play out.

State bonds and cash on hand could also make up part of the up-front funding mix, which is still being hashed out, state transportation authority officials said Tuesday night.

Officials are still analyzing whether it will be necessary to demolish the surviving spans of the bridge or if the new bridge will use them. The replacement bridge will have two lanes in each direction just like its predecessor and will be built in the same place.

Officials also reiterated Tuesday night that the future bridge will be built with an “enhanced pier protection system” in line with current engineering standards. Many scrutinized the design of the 47-year-old continuous steel truss structure, determined years ago by the state to be “fracture critical,” during the aftermath of the collapse and questioned why bridge protections did not keep pace with the growing size of container ships that traveled underneath it.

The state government as well as Baltimore City and Baltimore County have hired lawyers to handle the legal fights ahead.

The goal is to have a rebuilt bridge open by fall 2028. Moore said he will not be satisfied, “until I can look over on the Patapsco and see the Key Bridge standing tall again.”