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Authorities are clearing the damage from the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An update now on Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge five days after that massive container ship crash. The entire span collapsed and choked off the entrance to one of the nation's key ports. NPR's Scott Neuman joins us now. Good morning.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Scott, most of us by now have seen the really shocking video of the ship smashing into the bridge and the photos of the aftermath. What's the scene like there today?

NEUMAN: Well, first let me say that the bodies of two construction workers who were on the bridge at the time of the collapse were recovered last week. Authorities are still searching for four others. The scene itself looks pretty much the same as it did Tuesday, right after the bridge collapsed. You've got pieces of the bridge, built in the 1970s, blocking the entire Patapsco River. There are girders partially submerged on top of the bow of the huge container ship, the Dali. It's kind of like a crime scene. There's an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB. People and even drones are being kept away. But there is some good news. The Coast Guard said yesterday on social media that preliminary work to remove parts of the bridge is already underway, but it didn't provide any details about exactly what that means.

RASCOE: I mean, clearly this is going to be an enormous operation. What are you hearing about the plan to clear the channel?

NEUMAN: Well, for starters, they'll need to survey the damage before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can even consider moving that ship. At a news conference yesterday, Maryland authorities said an initial survey of it found its hull is damaged but still intact. That means it may be easier to move when the debris is finally cleared. Right now, though, it's still pinned beneath the collapsed span of bridge, girders that are too heavy to be lifted in one piece. Here's Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant General Scott Spellmon, speaking with WEEKEND EDITION yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SPELLMON: They're bent. They're broken. They're twisted. And so there are forces on that steel that we want to know what they are before we put a diver with a cutting torch next to it.

NEUMAN: Spellmon says they'll need to be removed in sections, and that requires a lot of lift capacity. A floating crane that can pick up a thousand tons arrived on Friday, and there are others on the way to help. But the NTSB says there's tons of hazardous waste in some of the containers on deck, so there's that to think about. And some of the containers might have been knocked loose during the crash, so they'll probably need to be secured before the Dali is moved.

RASCOE: And what about clearing the channel itself?

NEUMAN: Experts I've talked to say the Army Corps will likely need to use boats with sonar to create a grid map of debris on the bottom. Here's Maryland Governor Wes Moore speaking at yesterday's briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WES MOORE: The Army Corps and their partners will begin to move forward with the crane operations today. The north sections of the Key Bridge are going to be cut up and removed. This will eventually allow us to open up a temporary restricted channel that will help us to get more vessels in the water around the site of the collapse.

NEUMAN: That's when the divers with cutting torches that General Spellmon mentioned come in.

RASCOE: So are there any estimates about how long it's going to take to get ship traffic moving again?

NEUMAN: Well, tons of concrete and rebar fell into the water when the bridge collapsed, and these crews are going to have to pretty much clean up all the debris. That's because even though the channel is 50 feet deep, modern container ships are almost scraping the bottom when they're fully loaded. As to how long the removal will take, everybody seems to have a different answer. Some experts are fairly optimistic, like David von Schmidt, a naval architect and engineer I spoke to last week.

DAVID VON SCHMIDT: I think it's very possible that traffic moves in two-plus weeks. It'll - I think it'll be wide open for traffic shortly after that.

NEUMAN: Others are less encouraging. They say months. Spellmon says they should have a better timeline in a few days. As for building a new bridge, though, that'll take years. But it's something Maryland's governor says he's committed to doing.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Scott Neuman. Thank you so much, Scott.

NEUMAN: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.