Passengers from virus-hit ships start leaving Florida

Fort Lauderdale (United States) (AFP) –


Passengers from a virus-hit cruise ship and its sister vessel, also struck with a handful of cases, started heading home Friday from Florida, after being stranded at sea for days.

The Zaandam, operated by Holland America Line, began its stranger-than-fiction journey on March 7 in Buenos Aires -- before international restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus were in full force.

It was meant to dock two weeks later in Chile, but when passengers aboard fell ill, several countries refused to let the ship dock.

The Rotterdam came to its aid at sea, and the two vessels finally docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday -- with dozens of sick people aboard, and four dead.

"We have made history," said the captain of the Rotterdam, Bas Van Dreumel, in a message sent to AFP by a passenger.

"Some of you have a long journey ahead, some of you have already arrived home here in Florida. (...) You made me a better captain and you made me a better man."

On Friday, buses escorted by local police will transport those passengers deemed fit to travel to airports, where they will transfer to charter flights -- without transiting the terminal.

"Walking down the hallway," passenger Wendy De Pinho told AFP in a video message as she and husband Rick -- both in masks -- left their cabin for the first time in two weeks.

The couple then boarded a half-empty bus -- social distancing rules were being enforced.

"We'll be at the airport soon," De Pinho said.

Fourteen passengers and crew were evacuated on Thursday night to two local hospitals.

"Of the patients transferred to our system last night, some are in critical condition and some are in fair condition," said Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for Broward Health, which operates one of the hospitals.

Otherwise, a total of 26 passengers are being kept on board until they recover. Another 50 crew members are also sick and recovering, but all crew will remain on board the ships.

All told, 107 passengers and 143 crew reported flu-like symptoms during the voyage, but many have since recovered. Only 11 tests were done, and nine were positive.

The ships are to remain in Port Everglades until Saturday, and then will be anchored offshore until the sick passengers are cleared to disembark.

Another ship with coronavirus cases on board, the Coral Princess, has said it is heading to Fort Lauderdale and hopes to come into port at the weekend.