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How Ruby Princess became a death trap now being searched by murder detectives

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Investigation: Police board the Ruby Princess cruise ship at Port Kembla, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: NSW Police via REUTERS

Investigation: Police board the Ruby Princess cruise ship at Port Kembla, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: NSW Police via REUTERS

Investigation: Police board the Ruby Princess cruise ship at Port Kembla, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: NSW Police via REUTERS

Three days before the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Stacie Hunt, a 36-year-old Australian finance broker, and eight members of her extended family arrived at a downtown Sydney wharf to begin a two-week cruise to New Zealand.

The crew had to work fast to prepare the ship for 2,647 passengers. The Ruby Princess - one of the largest vessels in Carnival Corp's Princess division - had arrived at 6am that day, March 8, leaving them less than 12 hours to clean a vessel that would be as tall as a 70-storey building if raised vertically.

A health questionnaire had to be completed for every passenger before they could board. As crew members sifted through piles of paper, they had to break the news to some passengers they would not get to see New Zealand's fjords or mountains. "We knew even before we got on things were serious," Ms Hunt said in an interview.

The screening procedures felt like a necessary, if tedious, precaution. In hindsight, they appear to have been woefully inadequate.

Fifteen passengers have died, and some 660 people have been infected, either on board or from people who were, making it the deadliest outbreak on any cruise ship and the biggest individual contributor to cases in Australia.

Australian police have assembled a 30-strong team under the leadership of a murder detective to investigate the ship and its owner, Miami-based Carnival, the world's largest holiday travel company.

Detectives wearing head-to-foot protective clothing have seized evidence from the ship, including the data recorder that chronicles conversations on the bridge.

Some of those on board say that, despite an awareness of the virus sweeping the world, there was little effort to separate passengers and medical screening was inadequate.

When Kiri-Lee Ryder (41) complained to the ship's medical team at 1am one day that she had body aches and severe headaches, she was given headache pills and cough medicine, according to her mother, Carlene Brown. She was charged about $300 (€275).

A week later, the Australian mother of three was diagnosed with Covid-19. Ms Ryder spent more than two weeks in intensive care, much of it in an induced coma. Before going under, she phoned her children and mother from the ward, which had banned all visitors.

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"It's silly, but she calls me mummy and she just said, 'They are going to put me to sleep,'" Ms Brown said in an interview. "She wanted to say that she loved us. You could hear the struggle for breath in her voice.

"I said, 'We love you darling, and we will see you when you wake up.'"

Ms Hunt, whose mother and father-in-law were infected, said she blamed her fellow passengers, many of whom did not realise they could pass on the virus without showing symptoms.

"People were selfish and thought they were safe being away on a boat," she said. "I had people sneeze all over me. I had people squeeze themselves into lifts that were already too full. We knew what was going on around the world. We knew how quickly it spread in ships. People just didn't care."

A Princess Cruises spokesman said anyone displaying Covid-19 symptoms or who had been in contact with an infected person was not allowed on board and that crew members were tested by health authorities before the ship left.

"There was therefore no reason to believe there was Covid-19 on the ship," he said.

At the time, cruise ships worldwide did not conduct onboard tests but were expected to provide swabs to health authorities for onshore testing, he added.

The Ruby Princess arrived back in Sydney on March 19, three days early. Passengers were told they would be screened by state health officials, Ms Hunt said. Instead, they were given a leaflet explaining how to isolate themselves for two weeks.

Many could not return home right away. About one-third was from the United States or Europe. Ms Ryder and her family spent two days in a hotel, and then took a five-hour commercial flight to Perth.

It took five days after disembarking for the first passenger to die. Another who followed was 75-year-old Karla Lake, whose husband Graeme accused Carnival of allowing passengers to believe they were not at risk.

"They made a point of not letting anyone know at all that anyone was sick," he told Australia's Seven television network. "Good as gold, we thought it's fine."

It was known among officials that cruise ships were potent incubators of the coronavirus. The first Australian fatality was a passenger on another Carnival ship, the Diamond Princess, where 12 passengers died.

The ship was designated as having a low risk. The only other country it had visited was New Zealand, which did not have many cases.

"You can have laws, guidelines, practices and procedures in place, but if the people in whatever agency are not 100pc vigilant for whatever reason, then the whole thing can collapse very badly," said David Widdowson, an Australian academic who is president of the International Network of Customs Universities.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland


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