Eslam Negm is no stranger to being confused on the Suez Canal.
As a seaman on the rescue tug Baraka 1, the Egyptian is regularly confronted with fires, evacuations and loading problems on the around 50 cargo ships that cross the canal every day.
But when Negm got a call from his manager last week to help float a stranded container ship, he said pictures didn’t prepare him for the days of chaos.
The giant ship was traveling from China to the Netherlands with more than 20,000 shipping containers when it turned sideways near the southern end of the canal on early March 23. Its bow was wedged in the sandy east wall of the canal, and its stern was against its western wall.
The canal was blocked and a large part of the world’s shipping traffic was secured behind it.
Early reports suggested that high winds and poor visibility were to blame for a sandstorm, and the causes are now the subject of lengthy and high-profile investigation.
But for Negm and hundreds of other workers, the remarkable rescue of the Ever Given cargo ship was a task and a memorable one. In a series of interviews with NBC News, he and other maritime workers described a massive and international operation that relied on hard work, new technology, and ultimately the moon to free the ship. While the world marveled at the skyscraper-sized ship and annoyed at the backlog, it was local workers, engineers and tug captains who worked their way through sleepless nights and hungry days to restore navigation on the canal.
This is because Suez is not only a cornerstone of national pride and an important international trade route, but an important source of income and job security for thousands of Egyptians.
“We live on it,” said Negm, 32.
Sleepless on the Suez
When the first rescue efforts stalled, the Egyptians joined international rescue teams, who brought with them the necessary expertise and strength to drive the 220,000-ton ship away.
The Suez Canal Authority issued orders while a Dutch company specializing in salvage work acted as project manager and ran a fleet of tugs, dredgers and dredgers.
Negm and the hundreds involved in the rescue worked around the clock and against the current in freezing conditions. The Baraka tug served as a lifeline for the stranded tanker and was connected to the ship’s bow by cables.
The frustrations among the 20 crew members were great when the Ever Given remained stubbornly unmoved.
“The emotions during the long days of the rescue were extremely difficult,” said Mahmoud Shalabi, 36, the tug’s chief technician.
To free the ship’s jammed bow, dredgers worked around the clock to remove at least 27,000 tons of sand to a depth of 60 feet.
The work was not only difficult but dangerous for those who worked in the vast shadow of Ever Given.
“We were working under a 10-story building that could have fallen on us,” said Aly Awamy, a mechanic on the Mashhour dredger.
Looking up at the wedged tanker, Shalabi, the Baraka technician, recalls that it looked like the boat had been driven like a car that dodged another “abruptly and just before hitting the sidewalk”.
Bahaa Ramadan, a mechanical engineer, was walking from his village high on the west bank of the Canal to his office in Ismailia on the morning of March 24th, the day after the first landing, when he first saw the unusual sight of a ship. totally “sideways.
From the roof of his office he watched every day come and go without opening the waterway. The news consumed the surrounding rural villages, he said – the locals hadn’t talked as much about the canal since it was closed during the 1967 war, when Egypt and other Arab nations suffered a crushing defeat from neighboring Israel.
In Cairo, Mohamed el Gamel sent frantic WhatsApp messages at 5 a.m. Gamel, the CEO of Maridive, an Egyptian maritime and oil service company, organized the arrival of a tug that was stationed in the Gulf of America hours before the crisis point.
After initially declining Maridive’s offer of help, the canal authorities sought assistance as soon as they realized the size of the task ahead. The company’s tug was eventually positioned at the opposite end of Baraka 1 to pull out the stern of the ship.
“An absolute miracle”
The crisis was now the talk of not only the 100 million people of Egypt, but much of the world.
And with the sea jam, the pressure increased Hold at least $ 9 billion in trade per day, forcing a growing backlog of ships carrying oil, consumer goods and livestock.
And by the end of the week, the rescue effort had become an international issue. The Danish maritime operator Svitzer sent two tugs to sail 10 hours from their station in Port Said and join the growing fleet surrounding the massive cargo ship.
Kaspar Friis Nilaus, CEO of the company, said: “It was a tremendous teamwork, with channel officials coordinating the whole thing.”
Progress finally seemed possible.
The ship took its first step since landing on Friday night, but weather conditions thwarted any breakthrough hopes and its bow remained wedged in the sand and dirt.
“It was a high adrenaline rush for several hours,” said Shahira Zeid, chairwoman of Maridive.
A Dutch “new generation” tug came on Sunday with twice the pulling power of the Baraka and played an important role in the final liberation of the ship, Negm said.
“The arrival of the last, the very, very great. That was necessary, ”said Nilaus.
Then, at dawn on Monday, March 29th, after six days, the elements aligned.
For all human labor and modern equipment, the rescue effort ultimately rested on a force beyond their control: the tides.
“When it comes down to it, we still rely on the same seamanship. It was the moon and a lunar flood that helped float the ship, ”said Andrew Kinsey, Alliance marine risk advisor.
Negm stared down from the bridge of the tug, which he had manned for almost a week, and couldn’t believe his eyes when the Ever Given began to move.
The ship was partly made afloat again in the morning and finally freed around 3 p.m. Local time so the canal can be reopened later that night.
Originally defamed when false rumors surfaced on social media in Egypt that canal workers had deliberately blocked the vital trade route, the Suez rescuers were quickly hailed as heroes by the local press and their government.
Ramadan, the clerk, said many villagers thought the rescue was “an absolute miracle,” which defied logic after seeing how clogged the ship was.
Chants usually reserved for soccer stadiums swept cafes and outside areas, but for Negm, it was his mother who cried on the phone when she called to congratulate him, which made it all worthwhile.
“She knew how difficult this problem was because she was also working on Suez,” he said.
As that fortune begins to settle down, investigators have many questions to answer, including what caused the accident and who will pay for the damage it caused.
After initially citing a severe dust storm and strong winds as the causes of the ship’s landing, Rabie, chairman of the canal authority, said on Sunday that “technical or human errors” could have caused this as well.
Kinsey, the risk advisor and former ship captain who has made dozens of voyages down the Channel, said that there is seldom a single cause in such crises, but a chain of events, or what seafarers call a “chain of errors”. When a ship is this wide, the “delicate balancing act” between its captain and the Egyptian canal pilots leaves an extremely low margin of error.
To cross the Canal, an important corridor between Europe and Asia that is helping to shorten travel times and speed up trade, ships must pay an administration fee to the authorities and enlist the help of dedicated pilots to guide their journey through the narrow canal conduct.
Stories of requests for packets of cigarettes from canal workers – many now retired Egyptian Navy seamen – are common and can lead to strained relationships.
“You don’t ask for a box or two. They keep track of their numbers like 12 or 20 boxes, ”said Suraj Joshi, a former merchant marine.
Pilots are likely to be a focus of the probe in the coming months, but other former seafarers and canal officials agreed that the ultimate responsibility for navigating the canal rests with the master.
As the Egyptian authorities conduct an investigation that will analyze the ship’s black box, the fate of the ship is being managed by John Konrad, who runs the maritime news website captaincalls an “international conglomerate” so many parties are willing to point the fingers and shift the blame in a battle for compensation for maritime transport that is likely to take place in recent years.
It is a transcontinental affair as the ship owners are Japanese, the operator German, the insurance company British, the charter Taiwanese and the canal pilots Egyptian – while the ship itself is flagged to Panama.
“It’s done that way on purpose,” said Konrad, a former ship’s captain. “Because nobody but the captain and the cabin crew have any skin in the game.”
A spokesman for Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the technical operator of the ship, told NBC News that initial investigations “have ruled out mechanical or engine damage on board.”
The Suez Canal Authority and Shoei Kisen Kaisha Ltd., the company that owns the ship, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. Evergreen Line, the ship’s charter company, did not respond to a request for comment.
Canal officials and experts say the answers may be in the ship’s black box known as a voyage data recorder.
Rabie, the chairman of the canal authority, told Egyptian television on Thursday that the captain had not yet turned the box over to investigators, presumably because he was hiring a lawyer to represent him.
The ship is free, but has not yet left the canal.
Divers inspect Ever Given for damage while it waits indefinitely in Great Bitter Lake before continuing on its journey.