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An excavator works to free the Ever Given

Image: Suez Canal Authority

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You all probably recognize the above image as an early contended for ‘Meme of the Year,’ a tiny excavator doing its best to free the colossal Ever Given from its spot stuck in the Suez Canal. Who hasn’t struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds?

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Updated Wednesday, April 21, 2021 EST: Abdullah Abdul-Gawad, who complained he hadn’t seen a dime of overtime pay after spending 21-hour days trying to free the massive ship, has finally been paid along with a bonus for his heroic efforts, according to an announcement from the Suez Canal Authority.

We affirm that the employee has obtained all his due salaries/fees from his employer in addition to a bonus in recognition of his service above and beyond.

What you might not recognize is the name of the excavator’s operator: Abdullah Abdul-Gawad, one of the many sadly unsung heroes of the Ever Given fiasco. Insider spoke to the 28-year-old about his experience working 21 hours a day trying to free one of the largest cargo ships in the world:

To approach the base of the vessel, he built a makeshift “bridge” from rubble he dug up, allowing him to get closer.

The image of the little excavator gave the world unparalleled meme fodder, but for Abdul Gawad the situation was far less funny — it was dangerous.

Under the looming sides of the ship, he feared destabilizing the ship and having it topple onto him. “The thing is, I was terrified that the ship might list too far to one side or the other,” he said. “Because if it fell onto its side on me, then it’s goodbye me, and goodbye excavator.”

“If you see the size of the ship and you see the size of the excavator, it is absolutely terrifying.”

Two further excavators arrived at the scene a couple of days in, but their drivers were too apprehensive to do what Abdul-Gawad was doing, he said. Instead, they cleared away the materials near the base after he had dug it out.

Abdul-Gawad is a hero! Working in his flip-flops, he was the only operator with the guts to keep digging the sky scrapper-sized ship out of the sand, knowing full-well all 220,940 tons of the ship could flop over on him at any moment. He told Insider that when his social media flooded with memes featuring his tiny excavator trying to extract the ship, it only made him want to work harder.

To him, it felt like “everyone was just making fun of it,” he said. “And that was what made me so determined. I was like, you know, you’re making fun of me. So I’m absolutely going to prove that I can do this.”

But it was by no means clear he could.

“It can’t really be funny to me because I didn’t know whether this ship was going to come out or not, and I was in the middle of the situation,” he said. It became a personal mission.

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Eventually a combo of Abdul-Gawad and his coworkers’ efforts, high-tide from a supermoon, and the arrival of the dredger Mashhour freed the Ever Given after a six-day struggle. Abdul-Gawad and his colleagues were pushed to the breaking point by the constant work, and were able to catch some well-deserved Zs, but once the ship was freed, the world sort of forgot about them. He hasn’t even received his overtime pay for working those 21-hour days. From Insider again:

Abdul-Gawad said he has barely been included in the celebrations. Aside from a small ceremony held by one newspaper, he has received almost no official recognition for his role, he said.

“I was invited to the ceremony where they honored the people who got ship out,” he said. It was mainly for Suez Canal Authority employees he said, which does not include Abdul-Gawad since he works for a subcontractor.

He said it felt like an afterthought. The event was in a city four hours away, and he got the invitation an hour and a half in advance, he said.

He feels sore about that. “So the Suez Canal Authority was patting itself on the back and telling themselves what a great job they did,” he said. “But in the end … without an excavator, the ship wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It might still be stuck.”

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Today, we raise our glasses to you Abdul-Gawad. Someone, pay this man.