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Massive cargo ship turns sideways, blocks Egypt's Suez Canal

The Ever Given's bow was touching the canal's eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against its western wall.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A skyscraper-sized container ship has become wedged across Egypt's Suez Canal and blocked all traffic in the vital waterway, officials said Wednesday, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

The MV 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. Images showed the ship's bow was touching the eastern wall, while its stern looked lodged against the western wall — an extraordinary event that experts said they had never heard of happening before in the canal's 150-year history.

Tugboats strained Wednesday to try to nudge the obstruction out of the way as ships hoping to enter the waterway began lining up in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. But it remained unclear when the route, through which around 10% of world trade flows and which is particularly crucial for the transport of oil, would reopen. One official warned it could take at least two days. In the meantime, there were concerns that idling ships could become targets for attacks.

“The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade,” vowed Lt. Gen. Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority.

Credit: TEGNA
This screen shot from MarineTraffic.com shows a green dot representing the container ship Ever Given, which was trapped sideways, blocking the Suez Canal on March 24, 2021. The arrows around it represent tug boats attempting to move the ship.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, which manages the Ever Given, said all 20 members of the crew were safe and that there had been "no reports of injuries or pollution.”

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the Ever Given to become wedged on Tuesday morning. GAC, a global shipping and logistics company, said the ship had experience a blackout without elaborating.

Bernhard Schulte, however, denied the ship ever lost power.

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.

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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 kph (30 mph).

However, it remained unclear how wind alone would have been able to push a fully laden vessel weighing some 220,000 tons.

A pilot from Egypt’s canal authority typically boards a ship to guide it through the waterway, though the ship's captain retains ultimate authority over the vessel, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv. The vessel entered the canal some 45 minutes before it became stuck, moving at 12.8 knots (about 24 kph, 15 mph) just before the crash, he said.

Credit: AP
This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. A cargo container ship that's among the largest in the world has turned sideways and blocked all traffic in Egypt's Suez Canal, officials said Wednesday, March 24, 2021, threatening to disrupt a global shipping system already strained by the coronavirus pandemic. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

“Every day, 50 vessels on average go through that canal, so the closing of the canal means no vessels are transiting north and south,” Mercogliano told the AP. "Every day the canal is closed ... container ships and tankers are not delivering food, fuel and manufactured goods to Europe and goods are not being exported from Europe to the Far East.”

The Ever Given had listed its destination as Rotterdam in the Netherlands prior to getting stuck in the canal. The ship, 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.

Credit: AP
In this photo released by the Suez Canal Authority, a boat navigates in front of a massive cargo ship, named the Ever Green, rear, sits grounded Wednesday, March 24, 2021, after it turned sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal, blocking traffic in a crucial East-West waterway for global shipping. An Egyptian official warned Wednesday it could take at least two days to clear the ship. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provides a crucial link for oil, natural gas and cargo being shipping from East to West. Around 10% of the world’s trade flows through the waterway and it 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 before that new portion of the canal.

The incident 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, Mercogliano said.

“It’s because of the breakneck pace of global shipping right now and shipping is on a very tight schedule,” he said. "Add to it that mariners have not been able to get on and off vessels because of COVID restrictions.”

Associated Press writer Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.