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Salvage crews free giant container ship in Suez Canal after days of struggle

The mammoth cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal was wrenched from the shoreline and finally set free Monday, raising hopes that one of the world’s most vital maritime routes would quickly rebound and limit the fallout of a disruption that had paralyzed billions of dollars in global trade.

Within hours, other ships awaiting transit through the 120-mile waterway that connects the Mediterranean and Red seas fired up their engines and began moving again.

Salvage teams, working on land and water for six days and nights, were ultimately assisted by forces more powerful than any machine rushed to the scene: the moon and the tides.

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The ship, the quarter-mile-long Ever Given, was ultimately set free around 3 p.m., according to shipping officials. Horns blared in celebration as images emerged on social media of the once-stuck ship on the move.

“We pulled it off!” said Peter Berdowski, CEO of Royal Boskalis Westminster, a Dutch maritime salvage company hired by the vessel’s owner, in a statement. The success, he said, had made “free passage through the Suez Canal possible again.”

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt celebrated the moment on Twitter, writing that “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”

The stern, or the back of the ship, was clearly free from the land early Monday. But for hours until the ship was finally freed, it had remained uncertain if the ship’s bulbous bow had been truly pulled from the mud and muck on the banks of the canal.

Salvage crews had worked around a schedule largely dictated by the tides: working to make progress during the six hours it would take for the water to go from low point to high and then back again.

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With a full moon Sunday, the following 24 hours had offered the best window to work, with a few extra inches of tidal flow providing a vital assist to their efforts.

Throughout the night Sunday and into Monday, tugboats worked in coordination with dredgers to return the 220,000-ton vessel to the water.

Then, just before dawn, the ship slowly regained buoyancy.

It was a turning point in one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the global trading system hanging in the balance.

The army of machine operators, engineers, tugboat captains, and other salvage operators knew they were in a race against time.

Each day of blockage put global supply chains another day closer to a full-blown crisis.

Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock, and laptops — usually flow through the canal with ease, supplying much of the globe as they traverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

With concerns that the salvage operation could take weeks, some ships decided not to wait, turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that can add weeks to the journey and more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs. Each bit of progress in moving the ship over the weekend was celebrated by the workers on the canal, tugboat horns blaring and shouts of joy often echoing in the desert dark.

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Late Saturday, tugboat drivers sounded off in celebration of what was up to that point the most visible sign of progress since the Ever Given ran aground late Tuesday.

The 1,300-foot ship moved. It did not go far — just two degrees, or about 100 feet, according to shipping officials. But that came on top of progress from Friday, when canal officials said dredgers had managed to dig out the stern of the ship, freeing its rudder.

On Monday morning, the movement of the ship was even more dramatic, with tugboats able to almost completely straighten the vessel.

But for a while it was still unclear whether the bulbous bow, a protrusion at the front of the ship just below the waterline, was truly free.

The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said 11 tugboats had helped, with two joining the struggle Sunday. Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, dug around the vessel’s bow, the company said.

With the Ever Given sagging in the middle, its bow and stern both caught in positions for which they were not designed, the hull had been vulnerable to stress and cracks, according to experts. Just as every high tide brought hope the ship could be released, each low tide put new stresses on the vessel.

Teams of divers inspected the hull throughout the operation and found no damage, officials said. The ship was to be inspected again after it was freed.

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Assisted by a flotilla of tugboats, the ship was towed north to the Great Bitter Lake, the widest part of the 120-mile-long waterway, so it could be further inspected and delayed traffic could once gain flow smoothly.

Leth Agencies, a shipping services provider that specializes in canal passages, said on Twitter that with the Ever Given safely out of the way, 43 other vessels awaiting southbound transit at Great Bitter Lake had resumed their voyages toward the Red Sea end of the canal.

But with hundreds of ships backed up on either side, it could be days before operations return to normal.