By Hannah Sampson
As the coronavirus tore through the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan early last year, passengers confined to their rooms grappled with boredom, inconsistent room service, uncertainty and fear.
But as the new HBO documentary “The Last Cruise” illustrates, the ship’s crew members had no time to be bored. They were hard at work, often close together, and sharing living quarters with shipmates who were falling ill.
“We felt like only the rich would be taken care of,” said Maruja Daya, a pastry chef and single mother of two. “It’s not only the passengers who are threatened by this virus, so why are we still working?”
Before the virus was widespread enough to be called a pandemic, the Princess Cruises-owned ship with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew members aboard became the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak outside China. The documentary, which debuted this month and is available to stream on HBO Max, follows the voyage as it changes from a carefree cruise through Asia to a locked-down “ghost ship,” as Daya called it.
Videos show the transformation and follow the stories of several passengers and crew members. In the early days after leaving port on January 20, 2020, passengers filled the casino, joining in group activities and wandering freely. The first bad news came in an announcement from the captain on February 3: a passenger from Hong Kong who had been aboard for five days had tested positive.
Two days later, 10 people had tested positive and passengers learned they would be quarantined in their rooms for at least 14 days. The numbers kept increasing, as shown in updates in the film, until 712 people were confirmed to have the virus and 14 people died.
“We couldn’t just stay in our rooms,” said Luke Hefner, an entertainer who worked on the ship. “We delivered 3,000 meals, three meals a day, to all the guests.” Later in the film, he and three roommates would all been infected.
Crew doctor Franco Swart described the overwhelming scene.
“It was impossible to attend to every single person,” he said. “We were basically just surviving because it was really nonstop from morning to night.” And while crew members were working to protect passengers, he said, they were especially vulnerable in their living areas.
“It’s such a confined space that it’s impossible for them not to have exposure to each other,” he said. About a third of crew members who tested positive were asymptomatic, Swart said: “They didn’t know that they were spreading it.”
Security worker Sonali Thakkar said that her roommate tested positive and that it took four days for her to get her own test.
“It became really difficult for me because we were not even allowed to step out of the cabin,” she said. “On the crew decks, there are no windows, no ways that you can look outside. You don’t know what time of the day it is until you look at the clock.”
Footage shows crew members working in kitchens and cramped hallways, cleaning elevators and gathering to pray. Eventually, passengers were taken off the ship to quarantine on land or return to their home countries on government flights. Many crew members remained aboard.
“I really want to breathe the fresh air outside,” said Dede Samsul Fuad, a dishwasher from Indonesia. “After all the passengers were sent home, it was then that we became scared for our lives.”
He and other crew members made a public plea asking to be evacuated before they, too, caught the virus. According to the film, directed by Hannah Olson, Indonesian crew members were the last people evacuated from the ship, on March 1.