Abdullah Abdul-Gawad told Insider he helped free the container ship Ever Given from the Suez Canal.
The work was exhausting and he and his colleagues barely slept, he said.
He is proud of the “once in a lifetime” accomplishment, but feels he has received little official recognition.
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When excavator operator Abdullah Abdul-Gawad learned that there was an emergency at the Suez Canal, he thought that meant he would not have a job that day.
Instead, the next few hours – and the next five days and nights – had just the opposite in store. The Ever Given, a container ship the size of a skyscraper, lodged on the banks of the canal on March 23, and Abdul-Gawad’s boss was in dire need of it.
“We need you to get in a car and come right away because you are the only excavator driver close enough,” recalls Abdul-Gawad, speaking to Insider through an interpreter.
Describing the scene that confronted him at work, Abdul-Gawad told Insider: “It was really something … it was impressive.”
The 28-year-old, who operates excavators from college, said he and his colleagues worked 21 hours a day, barely sleeping – and still had not received their overtime pay.
This is how he said the events unfolded from inside the excavator cabin.
David vs. Goliath
Liberating the Ever Given was an international effort, with winches, dredges, tugs and excavators all enlisted. But Abdul-Gawad was the man who was literally on the rock face of the problem. Once at the base of the ship, there was no choice but to start digging.
According to him, the bow of Ever Given was housed about six meters higher than where the ship should have floated. Her stern was also sitting on the opposite bank, and the side ship was blocking all traffic.
To get closer to the base of the ship, he built a makeshift “bridge” from rubble he dug up, allowing him to get closer.
The image of the small excavator gave the world unprecedented fodder, but for Abdul-Gawad the situation was much less funny – it was dangerous.
Beneath the threatening sides of the ship, he feared to destabilize it and topple it over on him. “The problem was, I was terrified that the ship would be too far on one side or the other,” he said. “Because if she fell sideways on top of me, then it’s goodbye, and goodbye with a shovel.”
“If you see the size of the ship and the size of the shovel, it’s absolutely terrifying.”
Two more excavators arrived at the scene a few days later, but their drivers were too worried to do what Abdul-Gawad was doing, he said. Instead, they removed the materials near the base after he dug them up.
21 hours a day
Driving the shovel in his thongs, Abdul-Gawad undertook hours of searching.
This would be followed by half-hour bursts of tugs attempting to pull the ship, when Abdul-Gawad and his machine would receive a walkie-talkie signal to withdraw.
“But, you know, until I got down five, six meters, there was no movement,” he said.
On day two, his excavator’s memes – based on an image released by the Suez Canal Authority – flooded his social media feeds.
To him, it was as if “everyone didn’t care,” he said. “And that’s what made me so determined. I was like, you know, you were laughing at me. So I’m absolutely going to prove that I can do this.”
But it was not at all clear that he could.
“It can’t really be funny to me because I didn’t know if this ship was going to come out or not, and I was in the middle of the situation,” he said. It has become a personal mission.
“So I felt like instead of laughing at you, you could do something to help me believe that I’m going to be able to get this ship out,” he added.
As the days passed, Abdul-Gawad said he and his colleagues took brief moments of rest in a barracks used by border guards working nearby. “They knew that if we came home they wouldn’t see us skin or hair for another eight or nine hours,” he said.
At most, he said they slept about three hours a night and one night only took one hour.
On Thursday 25, a specialized dredger – the Mashhour – joined the efforts. Abdul-Gawad’s job was to move rocks and sand from the bow of the ship while the Mashhour dislodged the silt from the channel bed, he said.
The combined effort – with the help of a high tide – gave signs of hope the next day and was finally successful on March 29.
Abdul-Gawad said he and his colleagues were “half-dead from exhaustion … We had been pushed to our limit”.
But seeing what they had done changed all that. “As tired and exhausted as we were, the minute we saw the boat leave, it was as if the fatigue had evaporated, from such a sense of accomplishment.”
President Abd El-Fattah El-Sissi achieved a victory lap, issuing a statement that said: “The Egyptians ended the NEVER GIVEN stranded ship crisis despite the enormous technical complexity that surrounded the process.”
And then … almost silence
The Suez Canal is a source of national pride in Egypt, nicknamed “Egypt’s gift to the world” on billboards when the channel was expanded in 2015.
But Abdul-Gawad said he was barely included in the celebrations. Other than a small ceremony hosted by a newspaper, he received virtually no official recognition for his role, he said.
“I was invited to the ceremony where they paid tribute to the people who brought out the ship,” he said. This was mainly for the employees of the Suez Canal Authority, he said, which does not include Abdul-Gawad since he works for a subcontractor.
He said it was like an afterthought. The event took place in a town a four-hour drive away and he received the invitation an hour and a half in advance, he said.
He feels bad about it. “So the Suez Canal Authority was patting itself on the back and thinking what a great job it had done,” he said. “But in the end … without an excavator the ship wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It could still be stuck.”
Nevertheless, Abdul-Gawad will remember those extraordinary days with pride.
“It’s a success,” he said. “It’s a success for Egypt first, but it’s also a success for me. It’s something that happens maybe once in a lifetime or, you know, maybe twice. This is something to be proud of.
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