'This has been a nightmare': Canadian passengers on virus-stricken cruise finally headed for home

An ill-fated cruise that has had a COVID-19 outbreak and four deaths has finally come to an end after politicians in Florida agreed to allow its passengers — including 247 Canadians — to disembark in Ft. Lauderdale.

"I couldn't begin to tell you how happy we are," said passenger Chris Joiner, 59, of Orleans, Ont.

He and his wife, Anna are on board the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that had been sailing off the coast of South America and in the Caribbean for more than two weeks, looking for a place to dock.

"It's been a long, long journey — the worst experience of our lives," said Joiner. "Thank God, it's finally over."

The Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam, are carrying 1,243 passengers, including the 247 Canadian passengers and one Canadian crew member. They docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday afternoon.  

Local officials previously resisted allowing the two ships to dock as the Zaandam has confirmed COVID-19 cases on board and several passengers in need of hospital care. 

Four passengers on the Zaandam have died after the ship was hit with a flu-like illness in mid-March. Two of the deceased later tested positive for COVID-19, and Holland America has not yet said how the other two died. Several others on board have tested positive for disease that is caused by the coronavirus.

The Rotterdam and its crew joined the Zaandam last week, taking on more than half of its passengers to provide some relief. 

Submitted by Chris Joiner

"Local Americans lined the canal waving and cheering us as we entered — an emotional moment to be sure," said passenger Catherine McLeod, 69, from Nepean, Ont., who is on the Rotterdam. "I'm relieved. I can't wait to get back to my own bed."

Holland America said in a statement that passengers will undergo health screenings and clear customs and immigration in Port Everglades, then will disembark by Friday evening. 

Ten passengers will be taken to a local hospital for immediate care, while those deemed healthy will be bused directly to the airport for mainly charter flights home, said Holland America. The company said 45 passengers who are still showing symptoms will remain on board until they are cleared for travel. 

'This has been a nightmare'

The Zaandam began its South American cruise on March 7, but the trip was cut short a week later, on March 14, amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. The plan was to allow passengers to quickly disembark and fly home. 

But Holland America struggled to secure a place to dock as nearby countries, such as Chile and Peru, closed their borders to foreigners in response to the pandemic.

Following the illness outbreak, the ship's passengers were forced to spend the past 12 days confined to their cabins as a safety precaution. They've spent more than two weeks not knowing if and when they were going to get off the ship and be permitted to return home.

"This has been a nightmare from March 14, when the first port in Chile closed. [Then] all the ports in Chile closed and all of South America closed," said Joiner. 

Holland America Line

After a series of rejections, the Zaandam and Rotterdam planned to dock in Fort Lauderdale. But as the COVID-19 outbreak in Florida worsened, concerns grew that the sick passengers would drain resources needed for local citizens.

"We have enough to deal with, with our folks in Florida," Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference on Monday. "We don't want [the ships] to come in."

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, advocated for the passengers and their swift return home.

"We have to help the people — they're in big trouble no matter where they're from," he said during a news conference on Wednesday. "We have to do something; they're dying and the governor knows that, too."

Joiner said he was surprised but pleased when Trump weighed in on the matter.

"We never thought Mr. Trump would come to our rescue," he said. "But, you know, you start to think, this is a humanitarian mission. Now, we have people that are sick, including Americans."

submitted by Chris Joiner

Joiner's wife, Anna, has been suffering from a cold. But he's hoping they both pass their health check so they can leave the ship. 

He said he won't feel full relief until he and Anna are buckled in their seats on that flight home.

"Until we're on that plane … that's when we can relax," he said.