Key Bridge wreckage sinking into riverbed as lightning near Baltimore delays salvage operations

Divers surveying tangled and mangled steel have found the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sinking into the bottom of the Patapsco River.

Above the surface, cold rain and lightning have slowed an increasingly complicated removal process a week after a massive container ship that had just departed the Port of Baltimore lost power early in the morning of March 26 and hit a support column at 9 mph, toppling the bridge.

“Surveys are indicating the wreckage on the bottom of the 50-foot channel is far more extensive than we could have imagined,” Army Corps of Engineers Col. Estee Pinchasin said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not just sitting on the seabed, it’s actually below the mud line. That makes it very difficult to know where to cut and how to cut, and how to rig and lift.”

Rescue divers did not search for the four missing bodies Tuesday due to dangerous conditions caused by debris, the current and low visibility, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, said.

Meanwhile divers have continued to survey underwater to create models of the scene for engineers to study to plan removal of the bridge. Pinchasin said multiple dive teams are operating “3D, multibeam, side-scan survey systems.”

“We’re getting a much better understanding of what we’re dealing with,” Pinchasin said. “This is something that the salvage community knows how to do. While the cranes might not be moving, I can’t tell you how much is going on behind the scenes with our engineers.”

After a 200-ton section of the bridge was removed Sunday using cranes, the Key Bridge Response Unified Command — which includes the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland State Police, and officials representing the cargo ship’s owner and manager — had planned a similar operation for Monday that was postponed because of lightning.

“Yesterday we had a planned lift of one of those sections, the weather has delayed that lift. We haven’t yet completed it,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath said Tuesday. “We just can’t do that lift in lightning. It is unsafe to operate those cranes when you have lightning in the area.”

The National Weather Service forecasts a chance of severe thunderstorms around the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

While some progress has been slowed, strides have been made to establish temporary channels for smaller vessels to pass by the crash site.

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On Monday two vessels, fuel and scrap barges, passed through a temporary channel on the northeast side of the bridge with a depth of 11 feet, and Tuesday afternoon around 1:15 p.m., crews opened a second channel with a depth of 14 feet on the southwest side near Hawkins Point, Moore said. For reference, the center of the Key Bridge is 50 feet deep and large cargo ships carrying vehicles typically require depths of at least 35 feet, Moore explained.

Gilreath said the Unified Command eventually hopes to open a third, hopefully deeper, temporary channel.

The third channel will depend on when we can complete the removal of the bridge obstructions in that section,” Gilreath said. “After that is completed we will complete a survey and we will mark that channel as well.”

In Annapolis on Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the Maryland Protecting Opportunities and Regional Trade, or PORT, Act sponsored in that body by President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore City Democrat, and Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican representing Dundalk in Baltimore County.

The legislation would create temporary relief funds for workers and small businesses that will be displaced by the closure of the port. Moore said 57 businesses have applied for relief, along with “dozens” more that are in the process, and he has proposed a permanent scholarship program for families of transportation workers who die on the job as part of the PORT Act.

Following spring break and a holiday weekend, roadways around Baltimore were especially congested and dangerous Tuesday, Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said. About 15,000 more vehicles have been passing through the Fort McHenry Tunnel each day while around 7,000 additional vehicles each day are passing through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, Wiedefeld said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Dan Belson, Lia Russell and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.