“We felt like only the rich would be taken care of,” Maruja Daya, a pastry chef and single mother of two, says in the documentary. “It’s not only the passengers who are threatened by this virus, so why are we still working?”
Before the virus was widespread enough to be called a pandemic, the Princess Cruises-owned ship with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew members aboard became the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak outside China. The documentary, which debuted this week and is now available to stream on HBO Max, follows the voyage as it changes from a carefree cruise through Asia to a locked-down “ghost ship,” as Daya calls it.
“We were afraid we would never see our families again,” she says.
Videos show the transformation and follow the stories of a handful of passengers and crew members. In the early days after leaving port on Jan. 20, 2020, passengers filled the casino, joining in group activities and wandering freely. The first bad news came in an announcement from the captain on Feb. 3: A passenger from Hong Kong who had been aboard for five days had tested positive.
“As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, the situation is under control and therefore there are no reasons for concerns,” the captain says.
In a statement Thursday, Princess said scientific knowledge of the virus changed frequently in the early days and the cruise line worked with public health experts and authorities to ensure the health, safety and well-being of guests and crew. The statement said the cruise line was proud of its response to the crisis.
“Our response to covid-19 was conducted according to the directives of governments and public health authorities and consistent with industry standards,” the statement said. “As new information about covid-19 became available, we continually adapted our policies and protocols to reflect the latest understanding of the virus.”
Two days after the initial announcement on the ship, 10 people had tested positive and passengers learned they would be quarantined in their rooms for at least 14 days. The numbers kept increasing, as shown in updates in the film, until 712 people were confirmed to have the virus and 14 people died.
“We couldn’t just stay in our rooms,” says Luke Hefner, an entertainer who worked on the ship. “We delivered 3,000 meals, three meals a day, to all the guests.” Later in the film, he says he and three roommates had all been infected.
Crew doctor Franco Swart describes the overwhelming scene.
“It was impossible to attend to every single person,” he says. “We were basically just surviving, because it was really nonstop from morning to night.” And while crew members were working to protect passengers, he says, they were especially vulnerable in their living areas.
“It’s such a confined space that it’s impossible for them not to have exposure to each other,” he says. Roughly a third of crew members who tested positive were asymptomatic, Swart says: “They didn’t know that they were spreading it.”
Security worker Sonali Thakkar says her roommate tested positive and it took four days for her to get her own test.
“It became really difficult for me because we were not even allowed to step out of the cabin,” she says. “On the crew decks, there are no windows, no ways that you can look outside. You don’t know what time of the day it is until you look at the clock.”
Footage shows crew members working in kitchens and cramped hallways, cleaning elevators and gathering to pray. Eventually, passengers were taken off the ship to quarantine on land or return to their home countries on government flights. Many crew members remained aboard.
“I really want to breathe the fresh air outside,” says Dede Samsul Fuad, a dishwasher from Indonesia. “After all the passengers were sent home, it was then that we became scared for our lives.”
He and other crew members made a public plea asking to be evacuated before they, too, caught the virus. According to the film, directed by Hannah Olson, Indonesian crew members were the last people evacuated from the ship, on March 1.
“Not everyone can have the opportunity to work on a cruise ship,” Fuad says. “And I hope I will again soon.”