The man in charge of getting the Baltimore Port back in business

The wreckage from the cargo ship Dali and the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge has walled off most of the port to oceangoing ships. (Wall Street Journal)
The wreckage from the cargo ship Dali and the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge has walled off most of the port to oceangoing ships. (Wall Street Journal)

Summary

Jonathan Daniels became the head of the mid-Atlantic port in February, roughly two months before a containership destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

BALTIMORE—Jonathan Daniels took over this city’s port two months ago with a mandate to expand it. As he looks outside a 20th-floor window, it is clear how much his job has changed.

In the distance is the mangled wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the 984-foot containership that brought down the span in late March. He is now managing a crisis he never imagined that threatens a major driver of the area’s economy. In short, he has the hardest job in U.S. logistics right now.

“You look out there, it’s gone," he said of the bridge, part of the city’s beltway for nearly 50 years. “Not only is that route gone, but also it’s blocking commerce for the region."

The wreckage has walled off most of the port to oceangoing ships, including all but one of the vehicle terminals that made Baltimore the nation’s top gateway for imported cars. The Army Corps of Engineers says it aims to remove enough debris to fully reopen the 50-foot-deep channel by late May.

“We want our cargo back when that time comes," Daniels, who is 55, balding and deep-voiced, said in his first public comments since the ship Dali lost steering for unknown reasons and slammed into a bridge support column around 1:30 a.m. March 26. The collapse of the bridge killed six workers who were repairing potholes.

Daniels said he is already planning for the resumption of operations. He is acting as a liaison between federal and state officials and an array of port interests. That means staying in touch with shippers, private port operators and the longshoremen’s union, as well as with the Army Corps and Coast Guard, which are leading the federal disaster response. He sees a big part of his job as sharing information while managing expectations about when the port might get back to normal.

“He’s definitely got the most complex job to deal with right now. He’s doing multiple jobs at the same time," said Bethann Rooney, director of the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The National Transportation Safety Board, or the NTSB, is investigating what happened to the Singapore-flagged containership, and Chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday the probe was focused on the vessel’s electrical-power system and circuit breakers. Daniels said port officials aren’t aware of any problems with the ship before it left its berth for a 27-day journey to Sri Lanka. “There was no indication to us that there was any issue whatsoever," he said.

So far, Daniels has won plaudits from labor and industry players who were still getting to know him.

Just 400 or so of the 2,400 members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 are working on any given day right now. That compares with up to 1,800 before the collapse, said Scott Cowan, president of the local. The state legislature passed a bill to aid workers and port-related businesses.

“I feel like he’s doing everything in his power to get us through this," Cowan said.

Mike Derby, a senior vice president at Norwegian roll-on/roll-off shipper Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which uses Baltimore as a hub, said Daniels is “doing a great job in terms of not overpromising, but still working hard to get us as much information as he can."

The company normally brings in several ships a week. Its 750-foot ship Carmen, which can carry thousands of cars, was due to leave Baltimore on March 26, but is stuck in port.

On Tuesday, trucker Danny Dodd stood in the ship’s shadow, preparing to haul a shiny tractor to Norfolk, Va., where it would be loaded onto a ship for export—one example of how East Coast ports have stepped in for what Daniels hopes is just a temporary assist.

“Some of those ports are competitors of ours," Daniels said, and he is grateful they are working together. But when shippers ask what they can do, he said his response is: “You can come back."

While two tugboats guided the Dali into the Patapsco River shipping channel, they didn’t escort it all the way under the Key Bridge. Daniels said the port has begun discussions with tug operators about potential modifications to protocols, which he said would hinge on recommendations from agencies such as the NTSB and Coast Guard.

Such a change would require having enough tugs, he said, and raises other questions: “Are there enough tug captains to be able to do that? And what does that add to the timing as well? You can’t be up to full speed if you’re attached to a couple tugs."

Daniels’s grandfather was a longshoreman on Lake Erie, and his father did similar work for a time. His own career started in Maine, and he later directed ports in Oswego, N.Y., and Gulfport, Miss. Before being hired as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, he led Port Everglades in South Florida.

Past challenges have helped him prepare, he said. In Gulfport, he oversaw the rebuilding and expansion of facilities wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. In 2020 he took over at Port Everglades, one of the world’s largest cruise ports, after the Covid-19 pandemic froze the industry. Lori Baer, executive director of the Port Everglades Association, a business group, said Daniels guided the port through that period with openness and a bullish attitude.

Daniels came into the Baltimore job thinking about how to expand operations at the port, which consists of public and private terminals. He wanted more of the containers that bring in all manner of retail goods, and a boost in Latin American produce imports.

Daniels got a call minutes after the catastrophe and recalls the first time he saw video of the bridge tumbling into the water. “You still almost felt like you were in a dream," he said. Driving downtown, questions raced through his mind. “Was there anything that could have been done to be able to avoid this?" he said. “Then you have maybe about five to 10 minutes of just internal reflection."

More than two weeks later, he said he worries about the toll on his staff. He said he tries to find time for head-clearing walks and petting the therapy dogs brought to the command center.

Lately, he talks often with Mark Schmidt, vice president at Ports America Chesapeake, which operates the 320-acre Seagirt Marine Terminal. Seagirt typically sees 3,500 to 4,000 truck transactions daily, but that is down to a few hundred, Schmidt said. Crews mostly move containers that were taken off ships in New York or Virginia and trucked to Baltimore for redelivery to customers.

“We have a limited window of opportunity to get the channel cleared," Schmidt said.

Another regular contact for Daniels is Kerry Doyle, managing director at Tradepoint Atlantic, a 3,300-acre logistics center. It is located on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Key Bridge, and some auto deliveries were diverted there after the collapse. Doyle and Daniels recently talked about how to get car-carrying trucks from Tradepoint over to the terminals where arriving autos are processed.

“A lot of people would get really emotional and get really strung out from this," Doyle said. “He’s done really well in kind of being unflappable and a steady hand and not losing sight of the bigger picture."

Katy Stech Ferek contributed to this article.

Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com

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