The guy driving the Suez Canal excavator didn't like becoming a meme star but said the attention made him work harder
- The tiny excavator next to the Ever Given spurred dozens of Suez Canal memes.
- And the man who drove the excavator did not enjoy the jokes, he told Insider.
- But he said they made him more determined to free the ship so that people would say: "He did it."
The man driving the excavator on the banks of the Suez Canal that became an internet sensation for its struggle to shift the Ever Given cargo ship did not much enjoy the memes about him.
But in an interview with Insider, he said the attention helped spur him to work harder in the six-day struggle to shift the huge container ship.
As soon as the massive container ship became lodged in the canal on March 23, images from the scene captivated people worldwide. A key route in world trade had been blocked, at a cost of many millions of dollars per hour.
One of the most striking images from the rescue operation featured the 28-year-old Abdullah Abdel-Gawad and his excavator, and it struck a chord for showing one man and his machine against a skyscraper-sized ship.
But one of the last people to become aware of the avalanche of memes that followed was Abdel-Gawad himself.
Insider spoke with Abdel-Gawad about his experience in the six days he worked almost constantly to help free the ship.
He said that from inside his excavator, he did not notice a photographer taking the now famous photograph, which was distributed by the Suez Canal Authority on March 25.
"I really wasn't paying attention to any of this," he said. And then he started to see the memes on his social-media streams.
In Egypt and abroad, people projected their own problems onto the massive ship and used Abdel-Gawad's tiny excavator to represent the inadequate tools they had to address them.
One meme that Abdel-Gawad mentioned labeled the Ever Given as "my cellulite" and his excavator as "a cup of green tea." Others are now familiar.
-Lacy Baugher-Milas (@LacyMB) March 29, 2021
But for Abdel-Gawad, it was hard to laugh. For him, it seemed like the world was laughing at his work.
"Well, the thing is, they were making fun of it," he said, going on to paraphrase one meme he saw. "They said: 'The Suez Canal Authority took action but sent equipment the size of a grain of rice.'"
"I was a little bit upset," he added. "But I was really so motivated because I wanted the world to say: 'He did it.'"
He was so aware of the gaze of the world on his work that he didn't want anyone to know he was the man inside the excavator until after the ship was freed, he said.
And he was not the only worker to feel that sort of pressure. Mariners operating tugboats also had the memes in mind as they made their multiple attempts to tow the ship, The Washington Post reported.
"No one was able to see how much pressure we were under," Eslam Negm, who was on the Baraka 1 tugboat, told the newspaper.
And for Abdel-Gawad, even the tugboats didn't offer the same spectacle as his excavator.
"Nobody really focused on those," he said, speaking of the memes about the situation. "It was just the excavator because of the huge size difference, such a tiny excavator in front of such a gigantic ship."
Another factor that drained any humor from the situation for him was how frightening it was to be underneath the enormous vessel, he said.
From his estimation, the Ever Given was lodged about 6 meters higher than where it would naturally float, and his job was to pry at the rock and mud encasing it. He said he had a very real fear that instead of refloating the ship, he would destabilize it, causing it to topple onto him.
"If you see the size of the ship, and you see the size of the excavator, it is absolutely terrifying," he said. Another two workers in excavators, who arrived at the scene a couple of days in, were too scared to work directly beneath the ship, Abdel-Gawad said.
Instead, they worked to ferry the excavated material away from where he had piled it up. Somehow, by default, it became his job, he said.
"They found me working there, and they were like, 'OK, this guy is next to the water. Nobody interfere now,'" he said.
Abdel-Gawad's only response was to knuckle down and get on with the job, while he was working on about three hours of sleep a night.
"I thought, I can only respond by actions, and that's kind of how I've operated all my life," he said. "I don't respond with words. I respond with actions."
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