Samuel Steinberger

Multimedia Journalist

Panama Celebrates Expanded Canal’s Successful First Passage

Contributing reporting, as seen in The New York Times.

The Cosco Shipping Panama makes the first official transit through the expanded Panama Canal lock system. Photo by Samuel Steinberger.

The Cosco Shipping Panama makes the first official transit through the expanded Panama Canal lock system. Photo by Samuel Steinberger.

By Walt Bogdanich

A Chinese-owned container ship, Cosco Shipping Panama, on Sunday became the first commercial vessel to successfully cross the Panama Canal’s newly expanded locks, a historic achievement that Panama hopes will keep the canal as relevant in this century as it was in the last.

Panama built the expanded locks, without help from other governments, because the newer ships that increasingly carry the world’s cargo are too large to fit in the old canal.

Seventy heads of state were invited to watch Cosco Shipping’s inaugural passage through the canal’s six massive locks — three on the Atlantic side, where the ship entered shortly after dawn, and three on the Pacific side, where the dignitaries patiently waited.

Much of the ship’s transit was televised live to the nation and the world. Once the container ship successfully entered the first lock in mostly sunny, calm conditions, its passage was halted for speeches, sermons and exchanges of memorabilia. Panamanians who went to watch the maiden passage cheered, and bands played.

As the ship made its way through the Atlantic locks, a serious accident — not related to the operation of the expanded canal — occurred near the Pacific side of the isthmus in the common waterway shared by ships passing through the old canal. The accident, involving a tugboat and an unidentified small ship, did not occur inside the old canal’s locks.

The canal authority said in a statement that 21 people had received medical attention, including four who were injured seriously enough to be taken by ambulances to a private hospital. The four were in stable condition, and the cause of the accident was under investigation, according to the statement.

Accidents of this severity are uncommon at the canal, which has operated with rarely a false note for more than a hundred years.

The expanded canal opened amid questions about its long-term viability due to water availability and changes in shipping patterns. It opened nearly two years late, missing the 100th anniversary of the opening of the original canal, which was built by the United States. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 turning the canal over to the Panamanians, although the actual transfer did not occur until 1999.

The ultimate cost of the project is not yet known because contractors have filed claims against the canal authority for an additional $3.4 billion — more than the cost of the original lock expansion project. A consortium of companies from Spain, Italy, Belgium and Panama won the contract with a $3.1 billion bid — a billion less than the second-lowest bid.

Samuel Steinberger contributed reporting.