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150 boat pileup: Massive cargo ship stuck in Suez Canal imperils global shipping

Work to clear vessel from crucial waterway set to resume, with continued closure potentially affecting energy shipments

In this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, a boat navigates in front of a cargo ship, Ever Given, on March 24, 2021, after it become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
In this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, a boat navigates in front of a cargo ship, Ever Given, on March 24, 2021, after it become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

ISMAILIA, Egypt (AP) — A skyscraper-sized cargo ship wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal further imperiled global shipping Thursday as at least 150 other vessels needing to pass through the crucial waterway idled waiting for the obstruction to clear, authorities said.

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged ship that carries cargo between Asia and Europe, ran aground Tuesday in the narrow, man-made canal dividing continental Africa from the Sinai Peninsula. In the time since, efforts to free the ship using dredgers, digging and the aid of high tides have yet to push the container vessel aside.

Egyptian officials and others were due to begin work again to free the vessel Thursday morning after halting for the night.

So far, dredgers have tried to clear silt around the massive ship. Tug boats nudged the vessel alongside it, trying to gain momentum. From the shore, at least one backhoe dug into the canal’s sandy banks, suggesting the bow of the ship had plowed into it.

n this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, a cargo ship, named the Ever Given, sits with its bow stuck into the wall on March 24, 2021, after it become wedged across Egypt’s Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, the company that manages the Ever Given, said the ship’s 25-member crew are safe and accounted for. The ship had two pilots from Egypt’s canal authority aboard the vessel to guide it when the grounding happened around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, the company said.

Canal service provider Leth Agencies said at least 150 ships were waiting for the Ever Given to be cleared, including vessels near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea, Port Suez on the Red Sea and those already stuck in the canal system on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake.

Cargo ships already behind the Ever Given in canal will be reversed south back to Port Suez to free the channel, Leth Agencies said. Authorities hope to do the same to the Ever Given when they can free it.

Evergreen Marine Corp., a major Taiwan-based shipping company that operates the ship, said in a statement that the Ever Given had been overcome by strong winds as it entered the canal from the Red Sea but none of its containers had sunk.

An Egyptian official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, similarly blamed a strong wind. Egyptian forecasters said high winds and a sandstorm plagued the area Tuesday, with winds gusting as much as 50 kilometers (30 miles) per hour.

An initial report suggested the ship suffered a power blackout before the incident, something Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement denied Thursday.

“Initial investigations rule out any mechanical or engine failure as a cause of the grounding,” the company said.

This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, March 23, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Tuesday marked the second major crash involving the Ever Given in recent years. In 2019, the cargo ship ran into a small ferry moored on the Elbe River in the German port city of Hamburg. Authorities at the time blamed strong wind for the collision, which severely damaged the ferry.

The closure could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Mideast, which rely on the canal to avoid sailing around Africa. The price of international benchmark Brent crude stood at over $63 a barrel Thursday.

The Ever Given, built in 2018 with a length of nearly 400 meters (a quarter mile) and a width of 59 meters (193 feet), is among the largest cargo ships in the world. It can carry some 20,000 containers at a time. It previously had been at ports in China before heading toward Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo. It also remains one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners. In 2015, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi completed a major expansion of the canal, allowing it to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. However, the Ever Given ran aground south of that new portion of the canal.

The stranding Tuesday marks just the latest to affect mariners amid the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands have been stuck aboard vessels due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demands on shipping have increased, adding to the pressure on tired sailors.

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