6 May 2020

'Healthy ship': Ruby Princess crew partied unaware of virus danger, NZer says

4:34 pm on 6 May 2020

Scores of crew members on the Ruby Princess celebrated with a party on the day it docked in Sydney, unaware of the public health disaster that was about to happen.

A tug boat gives a water salute as cruise liner Ruby Princess prepares to leave Port Kembla, some 80 kilometres south of Sydney on April 23, 2020.

A tug boat gives a water salute as cruise liner Ruby Princess prepares to leave Port Kembla, some 80km south of Sydney last month. Photo: AFP

It was 19 March - about a week after the World Health Organisation had declared a global coronavirus pandemic - and on the ship, dancers and musicians put on a show for everyone from the galley hands to the uniformed officers.

Sydney turned on a spectacular afternoon, and while the cruise had been cut short because international borders were closing, the impression among some crew members was that the ship was free of Covid-19 after NSW Health allowed the nearly 2700 passengers to disembark that morning.

Two former crew members who attended the party have told the ABC's 7.30 programme the mood on board was ecstatic.

New Zealander Chris Harris had been a trumpet player in the ship's orchestra since December last year. Formerly a musician in the New Zealand Army, he had worked on cruise ships for many years.

On the day of the party he played in the band, which performed songs such as Down Under and YMCA.

"When we left on March 19, as far as we were aware, we were a healthy ship," he said.

The "sail away" party would normally be reserved for passengers, but with the ship free of guests, the crew were treated to a special event.

Another crew member at the party was Byron Sodani, a fitness instructor who boarded the ship in January.

"A party without passengers - it never happens," Sodani said.

"When we normally sail away there's a dance and music, there's a singer, there's some cocktails going on, just welcoming the guests.

"And that was for us."

But the next day, NSW Health would confirm that three passengers who had already disembarked and one crew member still on board had Covid-19.

Now more than six weeks later, almost two dozen passengers have died and more than 600 passengers have tested positive to Covid-19. Two hundred crew members tested positive.

This handout photo taken and released on April 9, 2020 by the New South Wales Police Force shows police officers about to raid the coronavirus-stricken Ruby Princess cruise ship and seize its black box at Port Kembla, Australia.

Australian Federal Police prepare to board the Ruby Princess on 9 April to look for evidence, after opening a criminal investigation over the ship's approach to Covid-19. Photo: AFP / NSW police

At the party the crew were allowed to mingle despite the pandemic.

"People weren't too concerned about it," Harris said.

"We were aware of the social distancing but in our minds, we were thinking the ship is healthy, nobody's got the coronavirus, so we don't need to worry."

Sodani believed crew members' health was put at risk.

"We thought we had a clean ship and the idea of Covid-19 was just outside," he said.

"Because why would you let us do a party together?

"When it comes to health, I feel like we have all been put in danger here."

The Ruby Princess has now left Australian waters with some crew remaining on board. Many have since been repatriated after spending more than two weeks in Wollongong where the Ruby Princess was quarantined.

Crew members from the cruise ship Ruby Princess wave as they depart from Port Kembla, some 80 kilometres south of Sydney, on April 23, 2020, after a few hundred virus-free crew members disembarked to begin the process of repatriation to their home countries. -

Crew members wave before disembarking from the ship at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, to begin their trips home. Photo: AFP

Harris made it off the ship and is currently in quarantine in an Auckland hotel.

Sodani has returned to his home in Italy. "It's good to be home and it's good to just feel a little bit safer," he said.

The ship's operator, Princess Cruises, declined requests for an interview, but a company spokesperson said "the health of our crew is an extremely high priority".

"This is why we did not agree to Ruby Princess initially leaving Australian waters because it was important for the ship to remain for access to health services should they be needed," he said.

A Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess continues this week.

Customs is leading an investigation into the ship's visit to New Zealand, which is responsible for a cluster of almost two dozen Covid-19 cases in this country.

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19


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