When Gov. Wes Moore’s chief of staff called him in the middle of the night to tell him the Francis Scott Key Bridge had been struck by a cargo ship and collapsed into the water below, the governor thought he had misheard him.

“What do you mean by gone?” Moore said he recalled asking. It had collapsed, his chief explained. Then the video arrived on his phone.

“That’s when I knew: This is something that we as a state had not experienced before,” Moore said.

The governor recalled that moment and what came after in an interview in his State House office.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A flurry of phone calls followed the harrowing wake-up: to the county executive, the mayor of Baltimore, to the state police. The White House called at 3:15 a.m. He recalled his staff scrambling to find the earliest flight out of Boston where he had been scheduled to attend an event.

The minor details of the next few hours have since become a blur, he said.

But he remembers the moment his driver approached the site and he first laid eyes on the empty place where the Key Bridge used to cross the Patapsco River. “That moment still takes my breath away.”

The scope of the catastrophe soon became clear to Marylanders: Six road workers dead when they plummeted into the water along with the bridge, commercial shipping traffic brought to a halt, thousands of workers thrown out of work, a key commuter and commerce route simply gone, likely for years to come. Ahead would lie a determined search for bodies, a delicate process to remove the remains of the bridge and the ship that smashed into it, and a lengthy and expensive rebuilding project.

The days that followed started before sun up and finished well after sun down and required “intense stamina,” he said. “But it was no more intense than the people who were diving in the water and the people who were moving the cranes.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The bridge collapse made national and international news, thrusting Moore into a harsher public spotlight than the rising political star already experienced.

He said he called on mentors from his time in the military, at “weird hours of the night.”

“‘This is going to be a marathon that you’ve got to learn how to run like a sprint,’” he recalled one mentor telling him.

Then, after the collapse and after engineers and workers cleared two shallow alternate channels, Moore saw the damage from the air as he accompanied President Joe Biden on Marine One. He said the perspective shift was “breathtaking.”

On the flight, the president dove into technical details about bridge construction, spans and buffer distances with the experts on board. Biden has pledged the federal government will help clean up and replace the bridge.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“When he says, ‘Maryland, we’ve got your back,’ he means it. And as the chief executive of the state, that’s incredibly, incredibly meaningful to me,” Moore said.

President Joe Biden flies in Marine One over the wreckage of the Key Bridge on April 5, 2024. (Kylie Cooper)

Multiple federal and military agencies are leading the unified command that’s clearing the wreckage and working to restore maritime traffic in the Patapsco River. The leaders speak in a language that Moore, a former captain in the U.S. Army, is familiar with.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Moore has been bracing for the marathon ahead that his military mentor warned him about. After endless hours in those first days at the bridge site, the governor has begun to balance the response with the other needs of the state. The rest of state government did not grind to a halt when the bridge collapsed.

“I don’t have a choice between leading and navigating the operations taking place at the port and also making sure we’re putting forward an aggressive legislative package. ... I don’t have a choice to say: Are we going to make sure we’re going to bring comfort to these families? Are we going to open up the channels? Or are we going to address the housing crisis in the state of Maryland,” Moore said.

He continued: “I don’t get to choose. I’ve got to do it all. Our team is going to do it all.”

More From The Banner