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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A crane with Cold War CIA origins will help the Baltimore bridge cleanup

The Chesapeake 1000 will be used in clearing the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.    (Michael Robinson Chávez for The Washington Post)
By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Praveena Somasundaram Washington Post

The story of the massive crane tasked with clearing the wreckage of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge began with a secret operation in the midst of the Cold War, a billionaire’s cover story and a missing Soviet submarine.

Decades ago, the Chesapeake 1000 crane, which arrived in Baltimore on Friday, was a key part of a Central Intelligence Agency project that aimed to recover Soviet secrets in a period fraught with political tension between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

In 1968, a Soviet sub carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles went off the grid near Hawaii, according to the CIA. The United States found it 1,800 miles northwest of the state, and officials thought it might carry valuable intelligence. But how does one lift a 1,750-ton submarine from 16,500 feet below the surface?

The CIA took the lead and developed an operation that was code-named Project Azorian, ordering the construction of a huge mechanical claw to latch on to the sub and a ship-mounted hydraulic system to lift it.

That’s when the Sun 800, now known as the Chesapeake 1000, was conceived, “to build the ship at the heart of the CIA’s operation,” said Gene Schorsch, who ran the shipyard in the 1970s.

Now, the Chesapeake 1000, described by officials as one of the largest cranes on the Eastern Seaboard, will play a pivotal role in cleanup efforts.

Schorsch, now 95, was the chief of hull design when the crane was built. Despite being involved in its construction and use, he remained in the dark about the CIA’s operation for years, as did the American public.

To build the ship that it hoped would recover the Soviet sub, the CIA of the 1970s needed a cover story.

It turned to billionaire Howard Hughes, an aerospace engineer and film producer known for transforming Las Vegas, who was later played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator.”

Publicly, Hughes would appear to be the funder of a multimillion-dollar vessel for deep-sea mining: the Hughes Glomar Explorer. But its primary function would be to salvage Soviet secrets on the sunken submarine in what then-CIA Director William Colby said would have been the biggest intelligence coup in history, according to the New York Times.

In Schorsch’s telling, the Sun 800, capable of lifting 800 tons at a time, was a key component in building the Glomar Explorer. The pieces for the heavy-duty crane were sent to Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Chester, Pa., from Minnesota and Texas.

Once assembled, its signature achievement was carrying the 630-ton gimbal platform - a stabilizer and the heaviest item in the process - onto the Glomar Explorer.

Schorsch said the Sun 800 could “more easily, cheaper and quickly” lift the gimbal and other heavy items, making the process of building the Glomar Explorer much faster. He described the ship as “an engineering construction achievement.”

In July 1974, after four years of construction, the Glomar Explorer sailed from Long Beach, Calif., to the recovery site near Hawaii. For two months, it attempted to haul up pieces of the wreckage in secrecy. It wasn’t easy.

The submarine broke apart when the Glomar Explorer crew tried to lift it. One-third was salvaged, along with the remains of six Soviet submariners, according to the CIA and New York Times.

The ship returned to shore, and planning soon began for a second recovery effort. But the CIA learned that Hughes’s offices in Los Angeles had been robbed just before the Glomar set sail for its first mission. Documents tying Hughes to the CIA and the Glomar Explorer were among those taken.

The CIA enlisted the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department to track down the thieves. By the fall of 1974, news outlets started hearing rumors of the Glomar Explorer’s true purpose, and in February 1975 the Los Angeles Times published an article connecting Hughes and the FBI. (A former auto salesman was convicted in 1977 of possessing the stolen property and was acquitted of an extortion charge, the New York Times reported.)

The Soviets began monitoring the recovery site in the Pacific a few months after the theft, leading the White House to end additional recovery efforts. Project Azorian failed to recover meaningful intelligence, news outlets reported at the time, though the CIA still hails it as a success. The Glomar Explorer has since been renamed and used for deep-sea oil drilling and exploration, according to the intelligence agency.

Like the ship, the Sun 800 also found new purpose.

Years after Project Azorian, Donjon Marine bought it and renamed it the Chesapeake 1000 because after renovations it could lift 1,000 tons. The Chesapeake 1000 hoisted a 1,000-ton bridge span in 2008, removed a 700-ton ship as part of recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and helped lift an 800,000-pound structure as part of a campus expansion at Rockefeller University in Manhattan in 2016.

Now, it is one of at least four heavy-lift cranes that will help clear the wreckage of the collapsed Key Bridge.

The Chesapeake 1000 will be used to lift pieces of the bridge that fell onto the Dali, the ship that smashed into it after losing power. The combined weight of those pieces is about 3,000 to 4,000 tons, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) said during a news conference Friday.

Though Project Azorian - which the CIA said advanced “the state of the art in deep-ocean mining and heavy-lift technology” - appeared to glean little usable intelligence, its components continue to resurface today.