Wes Moore envisioned economic revival for Maryland. Then the Key Bridge collapsed.

PATAPSCO RIVER - Rain pierced the fog in the quiet Baltimore Harbor as Maryland Gov. Wes Moore stood on the bow of a Coast Guard cutter, flanked by other grim-faced politicians approaching the twisted remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“It doesn’t look real,” Moore said. “It just doesn’t look real.”

To his right, the southern trusses of the Key Bridge hinged over the 248 million-pound Dali, the wayward container ship that collapsed the bridge the day before, disrupting global supply chains in a few catastrophic, fatal seconds. To his left, dive teams worked to free the remains of two construction workers from a red pickup truck submerged in the murky deep.

Confronted with the wreckage up close for the first time, Moore said he felt heartbreak. And while he believed the team he had built could meet the moment, he said that the path ahead is “daunting.”

The first major test of his first term in public office had nearly severed the economic artery to Maryland’s largest and most troubled city — his own adopted hometown. Baltimore had been on the rise, and he had promised to help usher in a renaissance. Months ago, he said the problem that kept him up at night was that Maryland’s lackluster economy couldn’t finance the state’s ambitions. The recently expanded port, generating 15,000 jobs and handling a record $80 billion worth of foreign cargo, was a bright spot. But now that activity would flow elsewhere.

Suddenly, Moore’s community was grieving. Commutes were upended. Thousands of jobs were at stake. A divided Congress needed to be persuaded to help. The world was watching, and the bodies of four more construction workers were encased in the bridge’s superstructure. The families wanted their loved ones’ bodies back.

Standing on the cutter, Moore considered the transformed skyline. What rises there next could allow for even bigger ships — and more economic opportunity — to sail into Baltimore’s ports, one day. He asked his staff to begin exploring that. For now, he has requested detailed memos on what went right when Minneapolis rebuilt its major bridge in a year after its 2007 collapse, and on what went wrong in Tampa Bay when it took seven years to rebuild its Sunshine Skyway after a freighter hit it in 1980.


The days ahead called for strategy and diplomacy. They required a front-and-center presence on national television to reassure the public, reach for help and position Baltimore’s crisis as everyone’s problem. Those parts, he knew how to do. It’s easier than what comes next.

Even before the collapsed bridge put Moore, 45, in the world’s spotlight, he faced enormous expectations.

Some he built himself, promising to end child poverty and “leave no one behind.” Some he could not avoid, such as the gravity of being the lone Black governor of a U.S. state. People started talking about a future presidential bid for the former Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran before he even took office. The Democratic Party was counting on his surrogacy to help reelect President Biden.

Dry and seated in his satellite office in a downtown Baltimore office tower two hours after surveying the damage, Moore said he feels as though his life has been a series of steppingstones that, in hindsight, was preparation for this crisis.

“I wasn’t leading soldiers and saying, ‘One day this is gonna be great when I run for governor.’ Or when you’re running a business or you’re working in finance, you’re not doing that saying, ‘Well, this is a great skill set.’ But it was, right?” he said.

“I just feel like everything about the complexity of this time we find ourselves in, everything that we have done, has really prepared us for this moment when so much about the future of the state is very much on the line,” he said.

“And so this is daunting,” he said. “But we’re not flinching.”

Moore was in Boston on March 26, focusing on economic development in advance of being honored for his “inspired leadership,” when the call came from Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), just after 1:30 a.m. He didn’t hear it. His chief of staff’s call awoke him, but the magnitude did not hit him until he saw footage of the ship careening into the Key Bridge, fracturing steel like matchsticks.

On less than three hours’ sleep, Moore talked to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He declared a state of emergency. He repeatedly asked for an earlier flight than the 5:48 a.m. JetBlue trip to Baltimore that still left behind some staff members — and some of his essential staff’s luggage.

“You can learn a lot about a person when a crisis emerges,” said Tom Perez, a senior White House adviser to Biden and former Democratic National Committee chair who lost the 2022 primary to Moore. This week, Perez helped coordinate the federal response in his home state. “And from the moment we learned of this … Governor Moore was steadfast.”

“‘Hey, what do you need?’ That’s the first question that the president asked him,” Perez recalled. Moore had a clear answer, and plans and ideas, he said.

Moore’s nearly empty flight was descending toward Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport south of the city, as the mayor was telling the world the collapse “looked like something from an action movie.”

When Moore addressed the cameras two hours later, he emphasized the victims, their families and the region’s collective grief.

He then deviated from the plan, aides said, when he revealed that the ship had issued a mayday call that allowed police to stop traffic on the bridge, setting a global narrative focused on the heroes and what went right.

Moore went on to set a tone he would amplify in the coming days, praising Baltimore’s strength and casting the region’s fortunes as worthy of national attention and tied to the global economy.

By midday, Biden said he would “move heaven and earth” to help, citing the Port of Baltimore’s role in the global supply chain. He pledged the federal government would pay the full cost to rebuild the bridge. The price tag could reach $1 billion, according to two people familiar with early government estimates, aside from the cost of clearing the shipping channel.

Before the collapse, slightly more than half of Maryland voters approved of the job Moore had done during his first 14 months in office, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted March 5-12.


Moore received some of his highest marks from registered Democrats, with 66% saying he had done a good job. About 1 in 5 voters said they had no opinion, and roughly a quarter of Republicans gave him positive marks.

Among the detractors was Republican Richard Jeffrey Fisher, 66, who said he has not been a fan of the Moore administration so far because of the governor’s approach to almost every political issue. But Fisher, a retired machinist from Anne Arundel County, said the governor has stepped up in this moment.

“He’s not sitting on his butt,” Fisher said, rating Moore’s response “okay so far.”

Midmorning Tuesday, Moore was leaving a briefing when a Republican state delegate who represents the port area approached him. They embraced. They prayed.

“Governor Moore has handled this as a stellar gentleman,” Del. Ric Metzgar (R-Baltimore County), a Pentecostal minister, recalled of the exchange. “You know, this man’s not a trained politician. This is not what he’s used to, but I think he is handling this very, very well.”

That afternoon, Moore spent an hour with relatives of the six construction workers who had been on the bridge to repair potholes and were now missing. He comforted them while they cried and prayed with them. By the end of the day, the Coast Guard announced that the rescue mission had ended. The workers, all immigrants, were presumed dead.

The next morning, again on three hours of sleep, Moore was at the bridge site 10 minutes before dawn for four consecutive TV interviews on national morning shows. First he focused on the victims’ families; then he began ramping up his case that Baltimore’s economic problem should be everyone’s concern.

Farmers in Kentucky rely on equipment imported via Baltimore, he said. Auto dealers in Michigan would feel the consequences.


“The collapse of the Key Bridge is not just a Maryland crisis,” he continued at a Wednesday news conference. “The collapse of the Key Bridge is a global crisis. The national economy and the world’s economy depends on the Port of Baltimore.”

To Kaye Whitehead, a Loyola University Maryland professor and Baltimore talk-radio host, it was the sort of message people were longing to hear in oft-unappreciated Baltimore, which has drawn attention for the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” about the city’s troubles, and entered the global spotlight for 2015 unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

“We need this firm sense that someone has our best interests at heart, someone will be there fighting for us, someone can really show the compassion and empathy that is needed at this moment,” Whitehead said. “He uplifted the best of Baltimore and who we are, what we do here and what we contribute both to the state and to the world.”

Two hours after his morning-show blitz, Moore was at the port’s cruise ship terminal.

Joined by the mayor, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), U.S. Coast Guard officials delivered a briefing on recovery efforts and the impending feat of maritime engineering the salvage operation required.

Pittman watched, impressed with how Moore’s staff was empowered to ask questions alongside the governor and how quickly Moore processed so much information.

“I’ve always known that he’s a good listener,” Pittman said. “He’s completely in your world when he talks to you. But when he’s being briefed by whoever it is, I was watching how he’s completely absorbed in what that person is saying. And then you can tell that he’s on top of it from the questions that he asks.”

After the briefing, together, the politicians boarded the USCGC James Rankin to retrace the course the Dali took before it lost power and veered into the bridge’s support structure.

Moore peppered the Coast Guard personnel with questions about the location of the shipping channels, crouching to examine a depth chart of the harbor and nodding attentively as they pointed out where tugboats had peeled off after helping to maneuver the Dali into the channel.

As the rain grew heavier, his focus turned to all the pieces required to remove the submerged metal-and-concrete superstructure and how long similar work took elsewhere.

In the first 36 hours, Moore leaned on his sprawling network of mentors and said he reached out to several other governors: Maura Healey (D) in Massachusetts, Josh Shapiro (D) in Pennsylvania and Andy Beshear (D) in Kentucky, “who has had to go through natural disaster after natural disaster in his time.”

“I made some calls at some pretty random hours of the night, just asking people if they can just give me 10 minutes of their time,” he said. “The best advice is: Never forget, this is going to be a marathon. But it’s a marathon you’ve got to run like a sprint.”


His profile elevated, Moore drew both accolades and scorn online: A reply to a social media post of him wearing a Coast Guard life vest before boarding a boat read “2028 Presidential campaign content.”

Moore also endured the same racist attacks unleashed on Baltimore’s mayor, with people calling both men “DEI” politicians — an initialism for “diversity, equity and inclusion” that some used to suggest the men were undeserving of their elected positions.

“We know that so many folks, for any mistake that he makes, folks will say: This is why ‘they’ can’t be in these kind of positions,” Scott said. “And he’s proving those folks wrong.”

Moore later responded to the vitriol by saying, “I have no time for foolishness.”

Moore left the Coast Guard boat and returned to the Maryland Cruise Terminal, where his transportation team was waiting to brief him in the lounge normally reserved for cruise ship employees. He had questions about the state’s insurance policies, the process to request federal emergency aid, the cost-benefit analysis of rebuilding the Key Bridge in a way that would usher in more economic activity.

As he left the room, headed downtown to meet his senior staff, his phone rang with no caller ID. “Hello, Mr. President,” he said, stepping into a storage closet to talk.


Downtown, Moore listened to his circle of senior advisers give updates and troubleshoot as they devised strategies to expeditiously clear the channel, get resources to roughly 8,000 dockworkers, and address the ripple effects on an estimated 140,000 jobs linked to port activity. State lawmakers were also working on ways to stave off the calamity facing port workers.

“These next few days are going to set the tone for everything we’re going to do,” Moore told them, saying that he “could care less” about where the solutions come from and that “I care about what solves the problem.”

Before he gave them a pep talk about the long days ahead, how talented he thought they were and how important the work is, he reminded them that Baltimore had been on an upswing. The catastrophe could rally people around the city, and the intense attention that could help Maryland would not last long.

“We really want to be thoughtful about that,” Moore told his team.

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Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.