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Gigantic claws and cranes pull tons of Key Bridge wreckage from the Patapsco.

A small mountain of steel scraps sits on a pier at Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore County.

Those were once pieces of the Francis Scott Key bridge, explained James Harkness, the chief engineer with the Maryland Transportation Authority.

“This is our processing yard, where all the materials that are removed from the river are brought by barge and crane to this site, very large pieces of material, steel trusses, some 70 feet by 40 feet,” said Harkness.

The bridge collapsed on March 26th when a cargo ship struck a supportive pylon. Six construction workers filling potholes on the bridge were killed. All of them were immigrants originally from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Port of Baltimore cannot be fully opened until the wreckage is moved.

A few hundred yards behind Harkness is a 450- ton piece of steel truss from the Key bridge — the largest piece removed from the water so far. Officials believe there could be 50,000 tons of debris in the river.

“When they brought it in [Sunday], they actually had to cut it in half because it was about 90 feet tall. So in order to make it manageable for the crews working in the processing yard, they cut it down into half,” he said.

That piece, roughly the size of a nine-story building, was lifted by the Chesapeake 1,000 and floated nearly a mile down the Patapsco River. That crane, nicknamed “The Chessie” is the largest floating crane on the East Coast. Once it gets to Sparrows Point, it is cut apart.

That’s a multi-step process. A welder uses an oxyacetylene torch to cut pieces off from the base of the truss. The flame melts down the metal and is then instantly cooled by oxygen,creating a perfect slice in the steel frame.

That piece, now freed from the rest of the truss, is grabbed by a set of pincers, like giant metal claws, and cut down even further.

“It looks to me almost like a… like a dinosaur,” said Sharon Russell, as she gazed out over the machinery moving through fields of scraps. “It's so bizarre but it's cutting them into pieces that are easier to pick up and move and recycle.”

Russell is the Deputy Incident Commander for the Unified Command, overseeing all safety aspects of the operation.

“We have over 300 responders working on this, and we've had no injuries to date. We intend to keep it that way. Our priority at the Unified Command is the safety of the public and responders.”

Divers have one of the most dangerous jobs on site. They dive into the water and survey what’s actually there.

“There's no real visibility down there. I mean, we did get lucky a few days and we had three to four feet. But it's all tide dependent: if we have an incoming tide or an outgoing tide, it can stir a lot of that mud up,” said Robyn Bianchi, an assistant salvage master with Donjon Marine Co.

The divers need to make sure that the crane is lifting what it's actually supposed to. Each crane is weighted for a different amount, so pulling up a section that is too big or heavy could be disastrous. They must navigate rebar, concrete, and any other debris in near-total darkness; all the while making sure not to tangle the “umbilical”, or the diver’s breathing tube.

And everyone working on site knows it is an underwater graveyard; the bodies of two men are still encased in that wreckage.

“That's a concern for the divers… it's not something that we do often, but salvage divers are prepared for that,” said Bianchi. Her team did encounter one of the four men that have been recovered from the wreckage so far. They immediately surfaced and alerted the Maryland State Police for recovery, she said.

“We try not to have to really see that as much as it does have a mental effect on them,” she said.

Still stuck among the wreckage of the bridge is the Dali: the 984-foot Singaporean cargo vessel that struck the pylon and caused the collapse. It’s currently immobile as tons and tons of steel are strewn over its bow.

Joseph Farrell is the CEO of Resolve Marine, the company leading the recovery of the Dali. As of Monday, he said they’d removed 40 containers from the ship. It had around 1,000 containers when it left Baltimore heading for Sri Lanka before the accident; Farrell thinks about 140 more need to be removed.

As with everything in the recovery, Farrell described a situation that must be done very carefully.

“With the bridge across the bow, there's a lot of potential energy, meaning that this thing could actually continue to go further down [into the water],” said Farrell. “So the challenge is developing a cutting method that will quickly and immediately safely cut without endangering any more people or assets.”

The crew of the Dali is still on board performing the daily operations of maintaining the vessel. Farrell said there is no risk to the crew as long as they stay away from the bow of the ship. Once freed, the plan is to have tugboats assist the ship into the Port of Baltimore.

Around 1,000 tons of steel have been removed from the Patapsco so far. Representatives from the Unified Command are confident that the channel should be fully reopened to normal vessel traffic by the end of May.

Watch crews remove the piece here (courtesy of the US Coast Guard).

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
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