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‘People just didn’t care’: How the Ruby Princess cruise ship became a deathtrap

Investigators seized evidence from the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney April 9, for a homicide investigation into the country's deadliest infection source. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Three days before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Stacie Hunt, a 36-year-old Australian finance broker, and eight members of her extended family arrived at a downtown Sydney wharf to begin a two-week cruise to New Zealand.

The crew had to work fast to prepare the ship for 2,647 passengers. The Ruby Princess — one of the largest ships in Carnival Corp.’s Princess division — had arrived at 6 a.m. that day, March 8, leaving them less than 12 hours to clean a vessel that would be as tall as a 70-story building if raised vertically.

A health questionnaire had to be completed for every passenger before they could board. As crew members sifted through piles of paper, they had to break the news to some international passengers that they would not get to see New Zealand’s fjords or mountains.

“We knew even before we got on things were serious,” Hunt said in an interview.

At the time, the screening procedures felt like a necessary, if tedious, precaution. In hindsight, they appear to have been woefully inadequate.

Fifteen Ruby Princess passengers have died, and some 660 people have been infected, either onboard or from people who were, making it the deadliest known outbreak on any cruise ship and the biggest individual contributor to cases in Australia.

Australian police have assembled a 30-strong team under the leadership of a homicide detective to investigate the ship and its owner, Miami-based Carnival, the world’s largest vacation travel company.

On Thursday, detectives wearing head-to-foot protective clothing seized evidence from the ship, including the voyage data recorder that chronicles conversations on the bridge.

Cruise ships kept sailing as coronavirus spread. Travelers and health experts question why.

Some of those onboard say that, despite an awareness of the virus sweeping the world, there was little effort to separate passengers and that medical screening was inadequate.

When Kiri-Lee Ryder, 41, complained to the ship’s medical team at 1 a.m. one day that she had body aches and severe headaches, she was given headache pills and cough medicine, according to her mother, Carlene Brown. She was also charged about $300.

A week later, the Australian mother of three was diagnosed with covid-19. Ryder spent more than two weeks in intensive care, much of it in an induced coma. Before going under, she phoned her children and mother from the ward, which had banned all visitors.

“It’s silly, but she calls me Mommy and she just said, ‘They are going to put me to sleep,’ ” Brown said in an interview. “And she wanted to say that she loved us. You could hear the struggle for breath in her voice.

“I said, ‘We love you darling, and we will see you when you wake up.’ ”

Hunt, whose mother and father-in-law were infected, said she blamed her fellow passengers, many of whom did not realize that they could pass on the virus without showing symptoms.

“People were selfish and thought they were safe being away on a boat,” she said. “I had people sneeze all over me. I had people squeeze themselves into lifts that were already too full.

“At the end of the day, we knew what was going on around the world. We knew how quickly it spread in ships,” Hunt said. “People just didn’t care.”

A Princess Cruises spokesman said that anyone displaying covid-19 symptoms or who had been in contact with an infected person was not allowed onboard and that crew members were tested by health authorities before the ship left.

“There was therefore no reason to believe there was covid-19 on the ship,” he said.

At the time, cruise ships worldwide did not conduct onboard covid-19 tests but were expected to provide swabs to health authorities for onshore testing, he added.

Passengers disperse

The Ruby Princess arrived back in Sydney on March 19, three days early. Passengers were told they would be screened by state health officials, Hunt said. Instead, they were given a leaflet explaining how to isolate themselves for two weeks.

Many could not return home right away. About one-third were from the United States or Europe. Ryder and her family spent two days in a hotel and then took a five-hour commercial flight to Perth.

It took five days after disembarking for the first passenger to die. Another who followed was 75-year-old Karla Lake, whose husband, Graeme Lake, accused Carnival of allowing passengers to believe they were not at risk.

“They made a point of not letting anyone know at all that anyone was sick,” he told Australia’s Seven television network. “Good as gold, we thought it’s fine.”

Events on the Ruby Princess have blighted Australia’s otherwise effective response to the pandemic. About 50 people have died, out of a population of 25 million, and known infections are growing at less than 2 percent a day.

Federal and state authorities have traded blame over clearing the Ruby Princess to disembark passengers. The final decision was made by the Australian Border Force; it said it acted on advice from the New South Wales state health department, which decided passengers could be let off before tests from 13 sick people were completed. Four came back positive a day later.

Legal action

It was known among Australian officials that cruise ships were potent incubators of the coronavirus. The first Australian fatality was a passenger on another Carnival ship, the Diamond Princess, where 12 passengers died in a covid-19 outbreak that at one point accounted for more than half the world’s cases outside China.

The state’s chief medical officer has said the ship was designated as having a low risk of carrying the virus. The only other country it had visited was New Zealand, which did not have many cases.

“You can have laws, guidelines, practices and procedures in place, but if the people in whatever agency are not 100 percent vigilant for whatever reason, then the whole thing can collapse very badly,” said David Widdowson, an Australian academic who is president of the International Network of Customs Universities.

Carnival’s CEO says cruise ships aren’t riskier for getting sick. Public health experts tell a different story.

Brown, who has emerged as an advocate for social distancing, said her sick daughter, husband and grandson should have been given medical treatment as soon as they left the ship.

“I am absolutely disgusted,” she said. “If you’re working as a border person, in customs or immigration, and somebody walks through with a mask from a ship potentially carrying sick people, would you not ask: ‘Why are you wearing the mask? Why have you been unwell on the ship?’ ”

A law firm is organizing a class-action lawsuit against Carnival, whose share price has fallen about 75 percent this year. One focus is whether the Ruby Princess should have been properly sterilized before it left Sydney.

“We seriously doubt if they had enough time to properly clean the ship in those hours,” said Vicky Antzoulatos, a leader in Shine Lawyers’ class-actions division.

The Ruby Princess is now quarantined at an industrial port south of Sydney. About one-quarter of the 1,148 crew members want to leave immediately, according to state Police Chief Mick Fuller. Australian authorities are wary of letting any off, except for the most seriously sick.

A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government is assisting Americans onboard but would not provide any further details.

Six other cruise ships off the Australian coast returning to Asia have been told by the governor of Western Australia state that they are not welcome and should not stop for supplies.

Cruise ships kept sailing as coronavirus spread. Travelers and health experts question why.

Carnival’s CEO says cruise ships aren’t riskier for getting sick. Public health experts tell a different story.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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