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Army Corps continues efforts to remove wreckage of Baltimore's Key Bridge

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge now lies twisted and broken at the mouth of the Baltimore Harbor. Six construction workers were lost when a mammoth container ship, the Dali, struck one of the supports this week and brought the entire bridge down in a matter of seconds. Some of what is left is still draped across the ship. The rest is a tangled mess above and beneath the waters, remnants of a vital traffic artery that once carried millions of cars and trucks across the Patapsco River. The responsibility for clearing the crumpled span falls to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lieutenant General Scott Spellmon is their commanding general, and he joins us now. Lieutenant General Spellmon, thanks for being with us.

SCOTT SPELLMON: Scott, thank you for having me on this program.

SIMON: This is an important task - important to the country. How will you begin to take down the remnants of the bridge?

SPELLMON: Absolutely. Scott, first, if I could just start out by saying, on behalf of the 38,000 men and women in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have been lost in this terrible accident. We are just one small part of a much larger whole of government approach. Scott, we have all that we need to go about this mission.

To reopen this channel we are going to go about this in three steps. First is the channel itself. It is 700 feet wide and 50 foot deep. There is a lot of heavy - very heavy - steel bisecting that channel. And there's a lot of concrete at the bottom of the channel. We have to get the steel out, and we have to get the concrete off of the bottom.

The second phase is the vessel itself has a number of containers on top of it still. Those containers have to be stabilized. We have to refloat that vessel. The Coast Guard will do this with the shipping company.

And then, of course, the third phase is to remove the remaining 2,900 feet of steel truss bridge and concrete and roadway that's at the bottom of the river. An immense task. And we are working 24/7 to accomplish this mission.

SIMON: Let me be this blunt. How long do you think it will take?

SPELLMON: We are going to know more in the next few days on how long this is going to take. We think the first step in everything I described to you is to remove that portion of the bridge that is currently draped across the front of the vessel, Dali. That portion of the bridge weighs upwards of 4,000 tons. We're at least going to have to cut that portion of the bridge into four different members and safely lift it off of the vessel and move it out of our way so we can get to the remaining work.

Those steel members are obviously not in the original configuration. 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. That's a lot of math. That's a lot of analysis. All that is going on right now in rooms up at the Port of Baltimore with our best structural engineers, with the engineers that built this bridge back in 1977, to make sure we've got this plan right on paper before we put any of our workers or divers at risk next to the bridge.

SIMON: Lieutenant General, what don't you know? What remains to be found out?

SPELLMON: So there's a concrete tower that the bridge struck. That concrete's at the bottom of the channel. We don't know its configuration, how many pieces it broke into and the weight of what's at the bottom. So we'll be doing a lot of detailed diving and survey work. A vessel the size of the Dali - it is drafting about 48.5 feet when it comes into the port of Baltimore full. And I've told you the depth of this channel is 50 foot deep, so it's only about 12 to 18 inches of difference between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the floor. So we cannot have any remaining concrete, any exposed rebar, any steel members, certainly any containers on that floor, because that's also a hazard...

SIMON: That could be drawn up...

SPELLMON: ...The vessel's...

SIMON: ...In the draft of the movement of a ship and harm the hull of a ship.

SPELLMON: That's correct. We don't want any strikes 'cause that's equally dangerous to sailors and their vessels.

SIMON: What previous projects do you look to for instruction?

SPELLMON: So a good example for this one would be our ongoing wildfire response on the island of Maui. Although the problem sets are very, very different, there're some similarities here that I should mention. We still have missing loved ones at the bottom of the channel, and that is very much the situation we found ourselves in as we worked in our debris recovery in the village of Lahaina that suffered that terrible wildfire last year. And so we've got to go about this with a lot of detailed planning, a lot of diligence and, certainly, a lot of respect to ensure that we have the right protocols in place when we find those missing workers. We are going to cease work. And once we return those loved ones to their families, we'll get back to work.

SIMON: Lieutenant General, I know this question is going to put you on the spot, but let me try it anyway. Are ship's getting too big, or is our capacity to handle big ships lacking?

SPELLMON: So I think the question for the civil engineer in this conversation is, how do we make our federal navigation channels as safe as we possibly can to accommodate the increased size of these vessels? So today, across the country, Scott, I am responsible for 577 navigation channels that go in and out of our nation's ports and up and down our nation's waterways. We're working hard across the country today to modernize our ports, make them deeper, make them wider so we can get vessels into and out of port in a much more efficient and safer manner.

SIMON: Lieutenant General Scott Spellmon, who is commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you so much for being with us.

SPELLMON: Scott, thank you so much for your time today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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