'It became a nightmare': 2 people dead on Princess cruise ship docked in Miami with 99 Canadians aboard

Two passengers have died on the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship Coral Princess, which docked Saturday morning in Miami.

There are 1,020 passengers and 878 crew members aboard the ship, which set sail on March 5 for a South American cruise. Ninety-seven of the passengers and two of the crew members are Canadian. 

"All of us at Princess Cruises are deeply saddened to report that two guests passed away on Coral Princess," said the cruise line in a statement. "Our hearts go out to their family, friends and all who are impacted by this loss."

Princess Cruises didn't reveal how the two passengers died, but said they weren't Canadian. On Thursday, the cruise line announced that, out of 13 people tested for COVID-19 on board, seven passengers and five crew members tested positive. 

In late March, Holland America Line's Zaandam cruise ship also had a coronavirus outbreak on board and four people died. At least two of the deaths were related to the virus. 

Submitted by Frank Béchamp

Coral Princess passenger Frank Béchamp, 71, said the ship's captain delivered the news about the two deaths early Saturday morning.

"My wife and I, we just were dumbfounded. We didn't know what to think," said Béchamp, of Nepean, Ont., who's travelling with his wife, Céline Charette.

"Our hearts went out to the poor families that are stricken. It must be terrible for them."

Béchamp said the captain reported that the two individuals died overnight. He said passengers were told to pack their bags because the ship would dock on Saturday. 

Passengers remain on ship 

According to a memo sent to passengers Saturday morning, they must undergo a health screening and go through customs at Port Miami and then return to the Coral Princess. 

Princess Cruises said in a statement that disembarkation of passengers could take several days and those requiring medical treatment will be let off first. It also said that ill passengers not in need of urgent care will remain on the ship until they're cleared for travel. 

The cruise line said that passengers fit to travel will eventually be taken to the airport for arranged flights home. 

"Our concern remains getting direct flights home, avoiding transiting in U.S. airports," said passenger Gary Lyon, 64, of Toronto who's travelling with his wife, Sue.

"Sue and l were profoundly sad to hear the news," said Lyon in an email. "We wonder if they had been able to get off the ship earlier, would things have turned out differently?"

Submitted by Gary Lyon

The Coral Princess cut its cruise short in mid-March amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. But the ship struggled to find a port to let passengers disembark and return home after countries close by, such as Argentina and Brazil, shut their borders to foreigners.

Many passengers — including some Canadians — were able to disembark on March 19 in Buenos Aires to catch a flight home. But other passengers who had a flight departing the following day stayed on the ship — and then were stuck there after Argentina decided to close its borders to foreigners at midnight.

"After that, it became a nightmare," said Béchamp about the cruise. "Nobody wanted to have us."

Ship must have a plan

After failing to secure access to a South American port, the Coral Princess set course for Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an order temporarily blocking the ship from entering U.S. waters due to the COVID-19 cases on board. 

"Based on the hazardous conditions on board your vessel, I have determined your vessel poses an unacceptable risk," said the Coast Guard in a statement. Before Coral Princess could disembark passengers at a U.S. port, the ship would have to come up with a plan that ensured ill passengers are safely treated without imposing any risks, stated the Coast Guard. 

The ship was set to dock at Port Everglades on Saturday, but changed its plans on Friday to head to Miami instead. 

Submitted by Chris Joiner

Earlier this week, Holland American's Zaandam cruise ship was also set to dock and disembark passengers at Port Everglades, but faced opposition from local officials, because there were still many passengers on board sick with COVID-19. 

After U.S. President Donald Trump intervened by making a case on compassionate grounds, the Zaandam was allowed to dock at Port Everglades on Thursday. 

Both Princess Cruises and Holland America are owned by Carnival Corporation.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Zaandam and four Princess cruise ships — the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, the Ruby Princess and the Coral Princess — have had coronavirus outbreaks.

As a result of those outbreaks, at least 13 people have died and more than 900 passengers have contracted COVID-19.