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Giant cranes from China arrive at PhilaPort, signaling a new era

The $12 million cranes can unload the largest container vessels, making the Philadelphia port more competitive. VIDEO

Workers from crane manufacturer ZPMC and PhilaPort watch the Zhen Hua 16 dock with the port’s new giant cranes .
Workers from crane manufacturer ZPMC and PhilaPort watch the Zhen Hua 16 dock with the port’s new giant cranes .Read moreJonathan Wilson / For the Inquirer

Two new giant cranes capable of unloading the world's largest container ships arrived in the city Saturday on a slow boat from China, the 21-story-tall structures so huge they literally stopped traffic when they cleared the Delaware Memorial Bridge with only six feet to spare.

The cranes, manufactured by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Ltd.(ZPMC) of Shanghai, at a cost of $12 million each, will allow the Port of Philadelphia to keep pace with other port facilities, port officials said.

"Now we have the cranes so we can be competitive on the East Coast," said Jeff Theobald, the port's chief executive, who was among the officials and workers who turned out to gawk at the oddly configured vessel dock at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal.

"This is a great day for the Port of Philadelphia," said Jerry Sweeney, chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.

The heavy-load Zhen Hua 16 vessel, owned by ZPMC, is specially designed to ride low in the water so that the cranes, which weigh 1,684 tons each and are 252 feet high, can be slid directly off the ship's deck onto the wharves.

But the small amount of space separating the deck from the water means that the vessel must travel very slowly in the open water. It needed 91 days to sail to Philadelphia, passing below South Africa, with an intermediate stop in South Carolina, where it unloaded two cranes for the Charleston port.

"They're massive," said Dave McGuire, PhilaPort project engineer, who traveled to Charleston to observe the elaborate unloading operation that will be repeated in the next few days in Philadelphia. "The closer they get, the more impressive they are."

The Zhen Hua 16 needed to take on extra ballast and wait until low tide to pass under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and just to be safe, authorities halted vehicular traffic on the bridge during the passage.

The port corporation bought one of the cranes, and Holt Logistics Corp. and Greenwich Terminals LLC, which operates the Packer Avenue terminal, paid for the second.

"This will allow us to be more productive," said Thomas J. Holt Jr., president of Astro Holdings LLC, the Packer Avenue lease-holder. "We can get ships in and out more quickly, which means more cargo, which means more jobs."

Holt and the other officials praised Gov. Wolf for approving a $300 million grant in 2016 aimed at doubling the port's container cargo capacity and creating about 2,000 more direct port jobs.

The port and Holt have ordered three more of the new super post-Panamax cranes — so named because they can reach across larger vessels designed to pass through the widened Panama Canal. The three new cranes are scheduled to arrive next year.