Seagirt welcomes its first ship


After 10 years of planning and construction, the Seagirt Marine Terminal today hosted its first ship -- a development hailed by one optimistic port leader as the beginning of a renaissance for the Port of Baltimore.

"It's a great day and we're now moving forward with Seagirt," said an obviously pleased Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Computer bugs, construction delays and other problems have held up the opening of the $250 million terminal for more than a year and threatened to turn it into an expensive embarrassment for the state.

"It's a very big deal for the state, not just Baltimore," Schaefer said.

The first ship, the 600-foot-long Rafaela S., experienced engine trouble and arrived at the port late last night, a day later than originally planned. Officials hastily rescheduled an hour-long ceremony for today, where commemorative gifts were presented to the Rafaela S.'s captain and officials of its owners, the Mediterranean Shipping Co.

Champagne was distributed and the new terminal toasted as the black and white Rafaela S. and an orange city fire boat exchanged low, rumbling horn blasts.

Longshoremen were expected to load and unload a total of about 275 standardized cargo containers from the ship. Using a brightly painted, blue and white crane that towers 20 stories above the terminal, workers were able to handle 36 containers during one hour this morning -- a healthy pace for a port that has an average of less than 25 an hour.

Nearby, at a portion of the terminal operated exclusively by Sea-Land, the port's first container crane stood idle. Installed in the mid-1960s, the black and white crane appears small and primitive in comparison to the giant Seagirt machines.

"It really is the start of what I once called the renaissance of the port of Baltimore," said Lorenzo DiCasagrande, vice president at Baltimore for Containership Agency Inc., the agent for Mediterranean Shipping.

Many of the containers handled today were full of cargo headed to or coming from the Midwest, business that Mediterranean Shipping previously sent through the rival Port of Hampton Roads, Va., DiCasagrande said.

The ship last called at New York and will today depart for Hampton Roads.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, long active in maritime affairs, said, "This really is a very significant event."

She predicted the opening of the terminal would mark a re-awaking of the port's "spirit," lost over the past 10 years as thousands of tons of cargo a year were lost to competing waterfronts.

With 100 acres of storage space, the 265-acre Seagirt terminal has fast cranes, an adjacent rail yard, a sophisticated truck gate and other features that its designers hope will speed the flow of goods through the port.

So far, Mediterranean Shipping and Evergreen Line are the only ship lines to sign leases for the terminal. Both companies were already operating out at port, using different terminals.

Schaefer said today he is optimistic that lines not now calling at Baltimore will be lured to the port by the new terminal. He declined to target any competing ports, though he repeatedly brought up a visit he made to Hampton Roads four years ago where officials there boasted they were out to take Baltimore's freight.

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