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A mad dash for home: Canadian describes tumultuous journey from virus-plagued cruise
TORONTO -- When Bob Rorison boarded the Zaandam cruise in early March, he had no idea that he would be celebrating his 70th birthday with a dramatic escape from the ship.
Over the past 48 hours, Rorison and his wife have gone through medical checks, a madcap dash to make it on a bus to a Florida airport and a nerve-wracking plane ride to Toronto.
“It’s like a TV nightmare story,” Rorison told CTV News Channel over the phone.
The couple are among more than 240 Canadians who were aboard the Zaandam cruise ship, which was finally permitted to dock in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. with its sister ship Rotterdam after weeks of uncertainty.
The Holland America cruise line had been struggling to find a way to get passengers home since revealing on March 23 that some individuals on board the ship had started to show “influenza-like” symptoms. Eventually, four passengers died on the ship.
When the ships docked in Florida this week, 14 critically ill people were taken to Florida hospitals.
Rorison described a scene of chaos in the wait to find out if they were on the Holland America-chartered flight waiting in Florida to take Canadians from the cruise ship back home.
“We never did receive our flight documentation, and when they kept calling for people to go to Toronto, they never called us,” he said.
Fearing that they would be left behind, the couple made a decisive move. They grabbed their things and “ran off the ship,” to a bus waiting to take Canadians to the airport.
"We actually escaped from the ship to get on the bus,” Rorison said. “It turned out to be the right thing to do.”
As the bus made its way to the airport, it was surrounded by a buzzing crowd of motorcycles — a police escort.
Rorison said it was “at least 100 motorcycle escorts to make sure that nobody would come near our bus.
“It was a real security event down there. I guess they just didn’t want anyone to get in the way of us.”
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony told the Associated Press that more than 70 deputies had been dispatched to help disembark and transport passengers.
In total, there were 247 Canadian passengers on board the Zaandam cruise, plus one crew member, according to Global Affairs.
But not every Canadian made it onto that bus or onto the plane back to Toronto.
To be allowed off of the ships, passengers were subjected to a simple medical test last night, Rorison said: a temperature check. Those who passed were allowed off of the ship to go through U.S. Customs, and then returned to their respective ship for one last sleep before the rush to get home on Friday.
“There’s 243 Canadians on the airplane. Four were unable to come because they had elevated temperatures last night, so they wouldn’t let them leave the ship,” Rorison said.
He added that it “must be devastating for them.”
Passengers and crew on the Zaandam cruise have been living in fear and uncertainty for weeks now. The cruise originally departed on March 7, and was set to end at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21.
But when it became clear that cruise ships were not the safest place to be in a spreading viral outbreak, many cruise lines chose to suspend their operations and attempt to end cruises as soon as possible, including Holland America.
The trouble? Finding somewhere that would take the risk of allowing a cruise ship to dock.
Sister ship Rotterdam arrived to take healthy passengers — who had cleared medical screening — from Zaandam a week ago. The two ships then set a course for Florida.
In a bulletin issued on March 29, the U.S. Coast Guard instructed all cruise ships currently in the water to remain at sea to be sequestered “indefinitely” — a ruling signed by Coast Guard Rear Admiral E.C. Jones, whose district includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico.
The Florida government was initially reluctant to allow cruise guests to grace their shores, but U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that plans were being made to allow Canadians and citizens of the United Kingdom to be removed from the cruise ships and taken home.
"You have people that are sick on those ships and states don't want to take them," Trump said Wednesday.
"They have enough problems right now and they don't want to take them, but we have to from a humane standpoint.”
American citizens who lived in Florida were allowed off of the Zaandam and Rotterdam ships completely last night, and were driven to their homes.
But the full exodus of passengers and crew from the two ships could extend into Saturday, officials say.
As for Rorison and his wife, their journey is still not over. The two had a connecting flight at 6 p.m. to make it back to their home in Vancouver.
“We won’t arrive there until 11 p.m. tonight sometime if all the flights work out,” Rorison told CTV News earlier Friday, in the immediate aftermath of the plane landing in Toronto.
It’s an exhausting way to spend your birthday. Rorison had reached “the big seven-zero today,” he said.
But he’s not complaining about the circumstances.
“We’re all just extremely happy. Everybody clapped when we landed,” he said. “I’m so happy to be here.”
He said that he and his wife aren’t put off of the concept of cruises forever, but that he’s disappointed by the way the situation was handled.
“It’s been a complete nightmare, even up to the last minute.”
Rorison said that “even up until the day of docking,” passengers didn’t know where they were going to be getting off the ship, or if they were getting off of it.
“It’s not the cruise’s fault that COVID-19 showed up. But they certainly need to step up their act a little bit. They’re very disorganized. The left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing.”
Upon arrival at their home in Vancouver, the couple will be sequestering for 14 days in quarantine, as all Canadians are required to do upon returning from anywhere outside of the country.
Although Rorison described the situation as “nothing that we had ever imagined would happen in our lifetime,” he’s choosing to see the bright side: they made it home.
“This is the best birthday present I could get,” he said. “Getting home and getting onto Canadian soil.”
With files from the Associated Press