'My big fear is being carried off this ship in a box instead of walking off': An elderly veteran couple trapped aboard coronavirus-stricken cruise says US should help

Hugo Swan Jr. Zandaam

Courtesy of Elberta Swan

Hugo Swan Jr., an 81-year-old passenger aboard the MS Zaandam cruise ship, in his and his wife's cabin, March 28, 2020.

  • Four passengers aboard the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship stricken with coronavirus, have died; the ship has two more confirmed COVID-19 cases.
  • The remaining passengers are being divided into groups designated for those who are sick and healthy, as the latter are being evacuated to a nearby sister ship, the MS Rotterdam.
  • An elderly couple, Elberta and Hugo Swan Jr., from Victoria, Texas, spoke with Business Insider about their experiences on board the MS Zaandam.
  • Ms. Swan said, "My big fear is being carried off this ship in a box instead of walking off."
  • The couple isn't sure when they will be allowed to disembark from the Zaandam, after being told they couldn't be evacuated because Swan Jr. previously exhibited a cough and running nose symptoms.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Elberta and Hugo Swan Jr. have been married since 1973. They decided to celebrate an early 50th wedding anniversary in March, planning back-to-back cruises starting in Argentina and ending in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But the 73-year-old Elberta and 81-year-old Hugo, of Victoria, Texas, had no idea what was in store when they boarded the MS Zaandam on March 7 in Buenos Aires.Advertisement

Three weeks later, the ship and its passengers had gotten caught in the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world. At least 177 countries and more than 30 ships have reported cases of the COVID-19 virus. The Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship currently anchored off the coast of Panama after being stopped from docking there, became the latest.

"It is a very scary situation knowing you are on a ship with the virus even though there are lots of precautions. We were given masks," Elberta Swan told Business Insider via emails from the couple's cabin on Saturday. "However, I can't help but feel that we are destined to get the virus based on horror stories from other cruise ships. We feel like we are sitting ducks."

holland american zaandam

Andy Clark/Reuters

A picture of the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship.

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Business Insider's Áine Cain broke the news of four deaths on board the Zaandam on Friday after hearing leaked audio from a sister ship sent to rescue stranded passengers. Holland America later confirmed the report, adding that there are at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on board and that 138 passengers are sick.

"We have no way of knowing when or how many passengers or crew we may have been in contact with without any protection," Swan said, adding: "My big fear is being carried off this ship in a box instead of walking off."

A 'fluid' situation on board

There were originally 1,243 guests and 586 crew members on the Zaandam.Advertisement

The Swans have only been allowed out of their cabin once since March 22, for a supervised 30-minute visit to the deck a couple of days ago: "We're told not to touch anything," Elberta Swan said. Crew members have been delivering meals and collecting trash from passengers' cabins.

The crew gives updates via the sound system, and they also distribute printed communications, according to Swan.

"The ship's captain made an announcement about the deaths, but only after several deaths," she said. "He cautions that this is a 'fluid' situation, meaning things can change."Advertisement

The resilient couple is used to challenging situations: Both are US Army veterans. Elberta served between 1962 and 1964, and Hugo between 1961 and 1964.

Elberta Swan zaandam

Courtesy of Elberta and Hugo Swan

Elberta Swan, a 73-year-old passenger from Victoria, Texas, in her and her husband's cabin aboard the MS Zaandam cruise chip, March 28, 2020.

Though the couple both feel fine right now, the Swans are undoubtedly aware that they're among those at higher risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus, which disproportionately affects people older than 65.Advertisement

And they want to get off the Zaandam, but can't.

Only healthy passengers can evacuate the ship

The Zaandam's last visit to port was March 14, in Puntas Arenas, Chile before being scheduled to dock March 21 in San Antonio, Chile. Amid the global coronavirus outbreak, the cruise ship then adjusted its time table - turning around and heading back to Puntas Arenas so guests could get home.

Elberta and Hugo were scheduled to leave Punta Arenas and even had their flights booked back to Texas. Then, the approval to dock did not come through.Advertisement

"Despite previous confirmations that guests could disembark in Punta Arenas, Chile, for flights, we were not permitted to do so," Holland America said in a statement on its website. On Friday, a leaked Holland Line memo revealed ports and airports in South America and Central America had been closed off to the Zaandam and that "colleagues, fleet family members, and guests" on board "are in dire need."

holland america rotterdam zaandam

LUIS ACOSTA / Contributor / Getty Images

The MS Rotterdam and Zaandam anchored side-by-side.

So the cruise line has elected to evacuate passengers from the Zaandam to its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, anchored nearby.Advertisement

But there's a catch: only healthy Zaandam guests will be transferred.

"Only those who have not been ill will be moved, and health screenings will be conducted before transferring. Priority for the first guests to transfer will be given to those on Zaandam with inside staterooms and who are over 70," the company's statement said, adding that the Rotterdam would then sail to San Diego where guests could disembark.

But Elberta and Hugo will not be among them. Advertisement

Hugo had previously had a cough and runny nose, which Elberta thinks were a result of allergies. The couple reported those symptoms to the ship's health screening personnel, and have now been told they cannot leave.

"Today healthy people are being evacuated to the other ship," Elberta Swan said. "We can hear them moving down the corridors and watch the little boats taking them to the "healthy ship."

Holland America MS Zaandam in 2012..JPG

Andy Clark/Reuters

Holland America MS Zaandam in 2012.

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"We must remain on the 'sick ship,'" she said, adding: "We have no idea how long we have to stay on Zaandam or what will happen to us."

Holland America Line is currently working with Panamanian authorities to get approval to pass eastward through the Panama Canal in order to sail to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

'We think our country should offer some assistance'

Elberta Swan said the Zaandam crew has been trying to keep passengers comfortable, but that the burden of dealing with the COVID-19 cases onboard and managing the evacuation shouldn't fall solely on the crew's shoulders: "I think some pressure needs to be applied asking for help," she said.Advertisement

"My first follow up email from the [US] state department said this was ultimately the cruise ship's responsibility, she said, adding: "In my response, I reminded them that this is a very complicated problem for the cruise ship to deal with as there are many governments and a lot of politics. Also that we are US citizens and veterans who served our country with very little pay."

"We think our country should offer some assistance," the couple said.Zaandam passengers from other nations are similarly frustrated.Advertisement

Chris Joiner, a 59-year-old from Canada, and his wife Anna spoke to Reuters on Friday, sending the outlet a selfie of the pair of them wearing masks and holding a sign saying "HELP US."

"We're isolated. We're stuck on this ship. We can't go anywhere because we're not healthy, I guess," Chris Joiner said. He added that the trip had turned into a "nightmare."

Chris Joiner Zandaam

Chris Joiner/Handout via Reuters

Chris Joiner, a 59-year-old from Canada, and his wife Anna.

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As they wait in their cabin to be told what's next, Elberta said she is grateful for technology, and that she loaded lots of books onto her iPad. The couple currently does not have cell service.

"Thank goodness Hugo brought a book," she added. He's reading Rick Atkinson's "An Army at Dawn," and loves it.

Read Business Insider's full story on the deaths on board the MS Zaandam here.

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