'Surrounded by coughing': Canadian resident describes U.S. evacuation flight from Japan
TORONTO -- A Canadian permanent resident says he hopes he will remain healthy as he waits out another two weeks in quarantine in the U.S. following a lengthy journey from Japan where he had been quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
“I’m hoping that my temperature continues to stay under control, that I don’t start coughing, that I don’t test positive, basically,” Spencer Fehrenbacher said.
Fehrenbacher, an American citizen who lives in Fort Langley, B.C., was one of approximately 300 cruise ship evacuees who left Tokyo on a chartered flight destined for the U.S. on Sunday night. Before the U.S. government sent a plane to bring them home, the group had been under quarantine on the ship for nearly two weeks, in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Early Monday morning, the flight landed at the Travis Air Force Base in California, where healthy passengers are being kept in isolation for at least two weeks. Those who develop symptoms of the COVID-19 virus will be transported to hospital for treatment.
While Fehrenbacher said he’s happy to be back on U.S. soil, he described his journey to get there as an “emotional rollercoaster.”
“I’m still processing that journey,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview from the base on Wednesday.
Right after they disembarked from the ship, where at least 621 people have contracted the virus, Fehrenbacher said they boarded a bus to take them to Tokyo International Airport in what should have been a 20-minute drive, but ended up taking six hours.
“A lot of waiting, a lot of logistics, it was a long process,” he said in a video message he sent to CTV News Vancouver on Monday.
To make matters worse, Fehrenbacher said they had to keep making stops to allow for bathroom breaks.
When they finally arrived at the airport, Fehrenbacher said they had their temperatures taken before they were allowed to board a Boeing 747 aircraft that had been modified to resemble a cargo plane. He said the all-white plane’s windows were painted over or removed.
“There were no windows. There were various rows of seats and the centre of the airplane actually had this taped-off area that was like a quarantined zone for people who were already sick,” he recalled. “A lot of people in hazmat suits.”
The 29-year-old said he didn’t see anyone enter or exit the quarantined area during the 11-hour flight, but he might have missed it because he was sleeping for most of the trip. He said they were taken to a table where officials in hazmat suits gave them a wristband with their designated seat number printed on it.
“The whole experience, especially on the plane, felt like it was out of a sci-fi novel,” he said.
Throughout the entire journey, Fehrenbacher said he was “surrounded by coughing.” He said every few minutes on the bus and on the plane he would hear somebody coughing.
“There’s no way to know who’s healthy and who’s not short of a coronavirus test,” he said. “Everybody is trying to hide their cough.”
In fact, it wasn’t until after the flight that Fehrenbacher learned that a woman sitting directly behind him had tested positive for the virus. When they landed she and husband were not allowed to leave the plane and they were told they would be taken to Omaha, Nebraska, he said.
The woman was tested before they boarded the plane, but Fehrenbacher said her results didn’t come back before the plane took off.
“There was no doubt that I was exposed to more sick people during the journey home than I feel like I was during the quarantine [on the ship]” he said.
Despite his unease about the health of his fellow passengers, Fehrenbacher said he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to be repatriated. He said he’s trying to stay optimistic as he settles in to his new room at the military base, located near Sacramento. He said he has his own room with a balcony and he’s able to go outside to a fenced-off yard area whenever he wants.
“I’m staying optimistic,” he said. “I’m just keeping hope alive that I don’t develop symptoms over the course of the next couple of weeks.”
While U.S. citizens have already begun their second quarantine, Canadian passengers aboard the Princess Diamond cruise ship are still waiting aboard the vessel for a chartered flight to take them home. Canadian government officials have said that plane is expected to depart Japan on Friday.
Of the 256 Canadians on the vessel, 43 of them have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.