'Don’t mock the weak,' says excavator operator who helped unblock Suez Canal

Abdallah Abdelgawad describes working around the clock under the scrutiny of the real and online worlds while risking death

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In the real world, Abdallah Abdelgawad was far from famous when he worked to refloat the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week.

In the online one, he became a faceless star as the tiny excavator he operated appeared in memes that were shared millions of times.

To his family and country, Mr Abdelgawad is now a hero who fulfilled a daunting mission to free the container ship that could have cost him his life.

Mr Abdelgawad is an excavator operator making 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($190) a month.

At 7am on Tuesday, March 23, he reported for work as usual. Unusually, the gates were shut and entry was forbidden.

"I asked a soldier and he told me that there was a ship blocking the canal," Mr Abdelgawad, 26, told The National.

With colleagues, he returned to his accommodation in Al Arbain, 30 minutes away.

An hour later, Mr Abdelgawad received a call from his manager at the contracting firm for which he works, asking him to head to the canal’s eastern bank immediately. A Suez Canal Authority car was waiting for him.

“I told him we were denied entry earlier because of a ship blocking the canal, and he said ‘You’re going there for that specific ship’,” he recalled.

Drone footage captures efforts to free Ever Given in Suez Canal

Drone footage captures efforts to free Ever Given in Suez Canal

On that day, the 200,000-tonne Ever Given had run aground on the banks of the canal, jamming the vital waterway, bringing global trade to a near halt and causing millions of dollars in losses.

“We arrived at the location where a lorry was loading the excavator to move it as close as possible to the ship’s bow. We were 1.5 kilometres away. My heart started pounding hard,” Mr Abdelgawad said.

“The canal authority engineers started to explain the situation, but I realised from my eight years’ experience at the canal that the bow of the ship was stuck deep in the silt beneath. I knew that I had to dig deep around it from both sides to free it.”

Excavators had to dig 15 metres deep around the bow to free the bottom of the ship’s hull, while dredgers sucked sand from beneath the ship, allowing water to flow in the space so it would refloat when pulled by tugboats.

Alone, Mr Abdelgawad started digging out the silt beneath the gigantic ship’s bow, working non-stop from Tuesday until backup arrived the following afternoon.

He would have only three to four hours of rest a day for the next five days as local and international teams worked to free the ship and reopen the waterway that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

“When I went into the digger and looked up, the ship was like a high-rise above me. I started the engine. I could hear the sound of my heartbeat as I stepped on the brakes and power paddles. Everyone around me was worried as the location beneath the ship was dangerous,” he said.

The ship’s bow was lodged in the eastern bank of the canal while its stern was against the western wall, an event that had never happened in the canal’s 150-year history.

“I was scared, of course, but not the kind of fear that would push me back. What I thought of was that I am the only son to my father and I have two sisters, so if something bad happened my family will suffer back home,” Mr Abdelgawad said.

“The silt breaks not only on the surface but also in layers beneath, so if this gigantic ship at one point leant over it will crush me and the excavator. I won’t even see it as it does and won’t have the chance to go back,” he said, recalling his thoughts as he kept working.

“God is gracious and I placed my trust in him. There was only me on Tuesday and most of Wednesday and I told myself this is your mission. I felt no less than a soldier in a battle,” he said.

Back at home, fear was gripping his family and they showered him with calls every day to make sure he was all right.

But on social media, pictures of the giant ship looming over the lone excavator went viral, inspiring memes based on their relative sizes.

“They said things on social media like ‘the ant and the elephant’ and many things that made fun of the digger and me. I was upset at first, but all this was forgotten when we finally freed the ship,” Mr Abdelgawad said.

“By Monday, my body was numb with fatigue. But when we finally freed the ship, I took a video of it moving at last,” he said proudly.

“I posted it on my Facebook account and said that this achievement was done thanks to the essential role of my tiny digger. I felt as if I had won a war.”

View from Suez Canal bank as Ever Given is freed

View from Suez Canal bank as Ever Given is freed

Mr Abdelgawad received a hero’s welcome when he returned to his small village, Danjwan, on the outskirts of Shirbin city in Daqhaliyah governorate. Fellow villagers and neighbours met him with ululation and festivities.

“I knew that I did something big for my country; but when all the people gathered around me I felt proud and my father told me: ‘You made me proud’. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I want to sleep but I can’t,” he laughed.

"My life changed after these photos. I only have to go on TV now to become more famous."

But although the memes brought him fame, Mr Abdelgawwad has a message for all those who made fun of him.

“Don’t mock the weak or belittle them. This small digger had a big role in moving a ship that is more than 500 times its size. Now, I feel profoundly proud of what I did. I hope you all are proud of me as well.”