As Ros Torrance smiled at the camera on the balcony of her luxury suite aboard the Ruby Princess, she had an inkling something wasn’t quite right.
The $600 million cruise ship ticked all the boxes for Ms Torrance and her husband’s holiday: a dozen restaurants, casino, bars, pools, mini-golf, a theatre and live entertainment every night.
It was late February and COVID-19 was still weeks away from being declared a pandemic but, as the cruise went on, she started to worry.
“Everyone was talking about it. My husband and I were very careful,” she said.
The couple dined only in the exclusive Club Class dining room.
“We didn’t go to the buffet to eat,” she said.
Ms Torrance was lucky: she was on the ship weeks before the infamous Ruby Princess cruise that has become the single largest source of COVID-19 infections in Australia.
Ruby Princess passenger Ros Torrance and her husband loved going on cruises. (Supplied)
In the final days of her trip, she thought it was unusual to hear announcements asking passengers with a fever to come to the medical centre.
“Then they made an announcement that the New South Wales health authorities would not be letting us off when we docked,” she said.
“They would be coming on board and seeing people that were unwell and that nobody would be disembarking until they were happy,” she said.
Why New South Wales Health officials boarded that ship to check passengers but allowed thousands of passengers off the next Ruby Princess cruise is just one of the questions now being examined by a Special Commission of Inquiry.
At least 850 passengers and crew from the Ruby Princess have contracted COVID-19 and 24 people are dead. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
As Ms Torrance waited to disembark on March 8, she noticed the ship was being cleaned.
“I was immediately assailed by this incredible smell of disinfectant … we could see the next lot of passengers waiting to get on” she said.
Tracey Temple and her mother were standing on the wharf below waiting to board. Their cruise had been delayed for hours and gossip was spreading fast that NSW Health was on board.
“I heard that they were fumigating,” Ms Temple said.
“I panicked and went and tried to find somebody from the cruise ship.”
Alarmed, she found a crew member.
“I said to her, ‘I would like to ask you a question. I am a kidney and pancreas transplant patient. I want to know if it’s safe for myself and my mother to get onto this cruise?’
“She said that the cruise ship would not let one passenger, let alone all passengers, be put at risk if it wasn’t safe to sail,” Ms Temple said.
Passenger Tracey Temple and her mother Leanne enjoyed their time on board the Ruby Princess before Tracey became infected. (Supplied)
Ms Temple and her mother would soon join the hundreds of passengers on other Princess-branded ships who became infected with COVID-19.
“I nearly lost my life and my transplant as well, because of somebody’s neglect, somebody’s stupidity, and the lies, just the lies that they told.
“As far as I’m concerned, they put the mighty dollar first and they never put our safety first.”
The Ruby Princess wasn’t Princess Cruises’ first encounter with COVID-19
Just five weeks before the Ruby Princess embarked on its ill-fated journey, its sister ship the Diamond Princess found itself at the centre of a major deadly outbreak.
In late January, the ship sailed from Japan to Hong Kong. A passenger who got off there later tested positive for COVID-19.
It took the company nearly two days to tell the 2,666 passengers the news.
Melbourne woman Suzanne D’Silva and her family heard the captain announce a previous passenger had tested positive.
They felt assured the situation was under control.
Suzanne D’Silva and her family on the Diamond Princess cruise ship before they were forced into their rooms to quarantine for two weeks. (Supplied)
“We had no idea what was about to hit us,” she said.
After the announcement, cruise life continued: packed theatres remained open and guests kept visiting the buffet-style restaurants for meals.
Suzanne and her family celebrated a birthday in one of the restaurants that night.
The next day, the D’Silva’s holiday came to an abrupt halt when the ship docked in Japan.
Passengers were told they would be held under quarantine in their rooms for the next 14 days under an order from Japan’s Ministry of Health.
Diamond Princess passengers were quarantined in their rooms for 14 days. (Four Corners)
Japanese Infection Control Specialist Professor Kentaro Iwata boarded the ship to observe the authorities’ handling of the outbreak.
He was horrified by what he found.
“I don’t think there was any strategy. I think the scheme was to contain everybody,” Professor Iwata said.
“I think the operation at the Diamond Princess was a failure.
“They allowed the spread of the disease inside the cruise ship and they were not being mindful about the fact that many passengers were elderly people who are susceptible to severe diseases.”
Cruise ship the Diamond Princess in Yokohama City amid an outbreak of the coronavirus. (AP: Yoshitaka Nishi)
A week after quarantine began, Suzanne D’Silva’s daughter was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“You’re enclosed, you’re breathing in this air. The food is coming open. It could be anywhere,” she said.
“You’re hiding from something you don’t know and where do you hide?”
Three of the four members of the D’Silva family joined more than 700 people on board the Diamond Princess who contracted COVID-19.
The company encouraged crew and guests to share images with #princessproud as the quarantine dragged on.
Some passengers were confined to windowless cabins, only allowed out once a day to see sunlight.
Princess Cruises attempted to get on the front foot after the Diamond Princess disaster, running a positive social media campaign #princessproud. (Four Corners)
Carnival assured people it was safe to cruise after Diamond Princess disaster
Princess Cruises is part of the world’s largest cruise conglomerate, Carnival Corporation, which includes nine brands and over 100 ships in its fleet.
Despite the disaster on board the Diamond Princess, the company was determined to continue sailing.
At the end of February, Carnival Corporation’s chief medical officer, Dr Grant Tarling, reassured passengers it was safe to cruise.
“We’ve learned a lot from the world’s top experts and have stepped up our health protocols even more,” he said.
“The cruising experience continues to be an exceptional and safe way to travel the world.”
But less than a week after that message was posted on social media, the company was hit with a second major COVID-19 outbreak.
In early March, 21 people aboard the Grand Princess, off the coast of California, tested positive to the virus. The ship was stranded for weeks while authorities scrambled to work out how to manage the outbreak.
Carnival Cruise Corporation owns the Princess fleet which has been three major outbreaks of coronavirus on board. (Four Corners)
By March 8, after an hours-long delay, the Ruby Princess set sail from Sydney’s Circular Quay on its ill-fated journey.
Passengers settled into their holiday, enjoying theatre performances and a Rod Stewart impersonator and dining in the dozen restaurants on board.
Ms Temple remembers the mood on board shifting four days into the trip.
Entertainment on board the Ruby Princess was a highlight for the guests. (Supplied)
“We were watching the news and we didn’t know until we were on the ship that it had been classed as a pandemic. Then of course, you panic and you think, ‘Oh my God, you know, there’s no way you can get off’.”
Princess Cruises announced it would halt all new cruises for the next 60 days. In a video announcement, president Jan Swartz posed the question on everyone’s mind.
“We’ve been asked and we’ve asked ourselves, why COVID-19 seems to be impacting Princess so heavily … We don’t really know,” she said.
Things were about to get worse.
Virus spreads rapidly on the Ruby Princess
Welcome sign in New Zealand for passengers of the Ruby Princess. (Supplied)
As the Ruby Princess continued on its journey around New Zealand, some on board began to fall ill. Ms Temple and her mother were among them.
It was nothing serious, they thought; just a dry cough and upset stomach.
“I wouldn’t go to the doctor because they charge you like a wounded bull. I just put it down to a transplant thing, I didn’t ever have it cross my mind that it was COVID-19.”
On March 14, the ship docked in Napier and passengers spread across the town, visiting shops and taking bus tours. Some 24 locals would later test positive for the virus.
Tracey Temple (second left) and her mother Leanne (far right) in Napier. (Supplied)
The Ruby Princess couldn’t test for COVID-19 on board but doctors could take viral swabs for processing on shore.
When the ship docked in Wellington the next day, five samples were tested for the virus. All came back negative.
In mid-March, the New Zealand and Australian governments announced a ban on all incoming cruise ships. The Ruby Princess headed back to Sydney early.
Passengers from the Ruby Princess flooded tourist attractions in Wellington. (Supplied: Diane Fish)
On the way back, the ship’s senior physician, Dr Ilse Von Watzdorf, wrote in an email to NSW Health: “It seems we are in the early stages of an influenza A outbreak.”
But the message being delivered to concerned passengers was very different.
“They just kept reassuring you all the time, ‘this ship is virus-free’.” Ms Temple said.
“The steward that comes and cleans your room. He kept saying ‘no, we’re clear. This ship is good, we are free. We don’t have to worry.'”
The Ruby Princess was required to send logs with the number of sick passengers to Federal authorities.
The first report showed 53 people were sick and 10 had a temperature.
Over the next two days, those numbers more than doubled.
A picture of the Ruby Princess atrium taken by passenger Diane Fish, who later tested positive to coronavirus. (Facebook: Diane Fish)
NSW Health makes risk assessment based on out of date details
NSW Health also wrote to the ship, requesting further information about sick passengers.
On the morning of March 18, the ship’s doctor reported 104 people had presented to the medical centre with “acute respiratory illness” but only 36 guests, or 0.94 per cent of those on board, had “influenza-like illness”.
It was this figure, of just less than 1 per cent, that led NSW Health to classify the ship as “low-risk”. But the department knew some passengers were in isolation and had been swabbed for COVID 19.
What NSW Health didn’t know was that the number of sick people on board had continued to climb.
The ship’s doctor later told the Ruby Princess Inquiry that she was very busy and had forgotten to send through the details of more unwell passengers and crew who had come forward later that day.
On the ship’s final night at sea, passengers mingled on board, oblivious to the risk posed by the virus.
The ship’s atrium was filled with passengers for a farewell party.
Shortly afterwards, on shore in Sydney, a Carnival Australia Port Agent called 000 to request an ambulance for two passengers on board.
She told the operator staff would need to wear protective gear because both had “been tested for coronavirus”.
That information triggered a late-night decision by the NSW Port Authority to deny the ship pilotage.
An hour later, that decision was overturned after the head of the Port Authority spoke to a senior manager at Carnival Australia.
He reassured her that the ambulances were not called for COVID-19 reasons and that NSW Health had determined the ship was low-risk.
At 2:30am, the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney Harbour and the two ill passengers were rushed to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
A Carnival staffer handed 13 COVID-19 swabs to a pathology courier. Three, including the two taken by ambulance to hospital, would later test positive for the virus.
On board the ship on the night of March 18, passengers slept, unaware of the drama unfolding around them.
The fateful farewell
Passengers disembarked early that morning.
American Travel Agent Diane Fish led a tour group of 10 people off the cruise.
Crew from the Ruby Princess lined the decks to farewell passengers as they disembarked at Sydney Harbour. (Supplied)
“It was a long line of crew members with their hands up,” she said.
“So you’re doing this high-five all the way down the ship and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God. I just touched 50 people”.
When she returned to Miami, Ms Fish tested positive to COVID-19 along with 6 out of her 10-person tour group.
“We felt safer on the ship. I mean, we thought we were going to go into the problem. We didn’t realise we were going to be the problem,” she said.
American travel agent Diane Fish contracted COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess but said she would cruise again. Next time she would bring hand sanitiser, wipes and a mask. (Four Corners)
At least 850 passengers and crew have contracted COVID-19 and 24 people are dead.
A Special Commission of Inquiry and a police investigation are now trying to get the bottom of who is responsible.
Ms Temple blames Princess Cruises for not cancelling the trip.
“Yes, NSW health let us disembark the ship, but Princess Cruises put us on the ship to begin with. They should have cancelled the cruise before us to safeguard us. Because they have a duty of care, or supposedly a duty of care to look after their passengers, and they did not,” she said.
Princess Cruises senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific, Stuart Allison, insisted the company had fulfilled all of its requirements under NSW and federal laws.
“Even so, our onboard team had taken no chances, they required guests who reported flu-like symptoms to [remain in] cabins,” he said in a video released the week after the ship docked.
“The medical team was asked to provide swabs. Our guests could disembark because that was the official government process at the time.”
Regardless of who is to blame, Ms Temple said she will never be getting on a cruise ship again.
“My opinion is that they should put it [Ruby Princess] somewhere out in the middle of the ocean and sink it,” she said.