On the morning of Tuesday, March 26, Jonathan Daniels grabbed the first available suit in his closet, skipped his coffee and started the longest 30-minute drive of his life.

For most of the commute from his home in Pikesville to an office tower in downtown Baltimore, his staff was explaining the unexplainable: A container ship had struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, toppling it into the Patapsco River and plunging a construction crew into the frigid water below.

Daniels spent the last five minutes of his drive in silence, thinking about the long road ahead. As executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, he had to coordinate with the legion of government agencies descending on Baltimore, global shipping companies and local dockworkers. Perhaps most importantly, he needed to project confidence that the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore would recover.

It was his seventh week on the job.

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Despite a lifetime in and around ports — jobs that included a number of complicated emergencies — nothing prepared him for the Key Bridge collapse, Daniels, 55, said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.

His phone started buzzing shortly after 1:30 a.m., but the deluge of texts and calls didn’t wake him for hours. It was only when his wife flipped on the TV and Daniels saw the footage of the collapse that he knew he needed to get to the office as soon as possible.

The Maryland Port Administration oversees the Port of Baltimore, operating six state-owned marine terminals and supporting dozens of private docks for companies like Domino Sugar. About 20,000 people are directly employed by the Port of Baltimore, according to a newly released economic impact report.

The former top port administrator, William P. Doyle, resigned nearly a year ago after he was involved in a four-vehicle crash in a state-issued Jeep on the Jones Falls Expressway.

Daniels, a native of upstate New York, has overseen ports in Maine, Louisiana, New York and Mississippi. Most recently, he oversaw Port Everglades in Broward County, Florida.

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Daniels said he stumbled into the career. His father worked as a longshoreman on Lake Erie before becoming a college football coach. After graduating college at the Citadel in South Carolina, Daniels said he thought he would coach college football, too, and took a job at the Maine Maritime Academy.

Instead, he ended up getting a graduate degree in maritime management and was running a small port in Maine at age 26. From there, he moved from one port to another, with stops in economic development along the way.

By 2013, Daniels was chief executive officer of the Mississippi State Port Authority, guiding the $570 million rebuild of a port still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. In 2020, Daniels went to Port Everglades and oversaw the world’s third-busiest port for cruise ships during a global pandemic.

“It seems that these emergency issues tend to follow me, or I tend to step into them,” Daniels said.

Daniels said he and his wife came to Maryland this year partly to be closer to family — and partly for the challenge.

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Ports are “hypercompetitive,” Daniels said, and depending on which metric is used, the Port of Baltimore is either the country’s ninth or 11th biggest port. But few ports are as uniquely situated to succeed as Baltimore, which is the nearest deepwater port to the Upper Midwest and the Chicago market, he said.

“You can build infrastructure. You can build a lot of facilities. You can’t build geography,” Daniels said. “You are where you are.”

The Inner Harbor and Harborplace on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Daniels had just started feeling settled into his new job when the bridge collapse incinerated the regular playbook.

While Daniels is tasked with returning the port to full operation, he said the top priority has been the recovery of the bodies of the six construction workers killed by the bridge collapse and bringing closure to the families. As of Tuesday, four bodies had been recovered.

“That has been mentioned each and every day during all the salvage discussions,” Daniels said. “The governor has done an absolutely fantastic job with his leadership and making sure that we understand that the impacts are personal as well as economic.”

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Much of the port will soon be operational. Authorities are expecting to open a 35-foot channel at the end of April. The massive container ships need a 50-foot channel, Daniels said, but cruise ships and ships carrying break-bulk and roll-on/roll-off cargo will soon return to the Port of Baltimore.

The port is expected to fully reopen by the end of May. Meanwhile, Tradepoint Atlantic on Sparrows Point, which lies beyond the Key Bridge, has been busier than ever.

For years, the Port of Baltimore has handled more cars than any other port in America. While Tradepoint Atlantic has doubled its car capacity, most of those vehicles are headed to America’s second biggest car port in Brunswick, Georgia.

While Daniels said he appreciates the cooperation from the Georgia Ports Authority and other East Coast ports, he doesn’t want to fall behind.

“When this whole thing clears,” he said, “we want our cargo back.”

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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of publicly owned marine terminals in the Port of Baltimore. There are six.

Giacomo "Jack" Bologna covers business and development at The Baltimore Banner.

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