Coronavirus cruise ship under criminal investigation leaves Australian port

The Ruby Princess linked to 19 deaths in Australia, 2 in United States

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CANBERRA, Australia — A cruise ship that is the subject of a criminal investigation after it became Australia’s largest single source of coronavirus infections set off from the country's shores Thursday a month after it was ordered by police to leave.

The Ruby Princess has been linked to 19 deaths in Australia and two in the United States. Australia has recorded 75 coronavirus deaths. A government inquiry is underway into why 2,700 passengers and crew were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19 before the test results of sick passengers were known.

The Ruby Princess departs from Port Kembla in Wollongong, Australia, on April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Many passengers flew from Sydney overseas. Two died at home in the United States, including 64-year-old Los Angeles resident Chung Chen, whose family is suing Princess Cruises for more than $1 million for failing to alert passengers to the risk. Princess Cruises is a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., which is incorporated in Bermuda and headquartered in California.

New South Wales state banned further cruise ship arrivals until new health protocols are agreed with the federal government.

The Ruby Princess delayed its departure from Port Kembla, south of Sydney, because of sick crew members, several of whom have died in Sydney hospitals.

It left the cargo port with a skeleton crew late in the afternoon nudged by two tug boats. A large banner strung across its stern said: “Thank You Illawarra,” referring to the coastal region around the port.

Princess Cruises said the ship is headed for the Philippines.

On Thursday morning, 300 Filipino crew left the ship and were taken to Sydney to catch a charter flight to Manila. They traveled from Port Kembla in 40 buses because of social distancing rules.

The cruise ship Ruby Princess is docked at Port Kembla as authorities prepare for the ship's departure in Wollongong, on April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

One of the 550 crew members on board sent an email to Australian Broadcasting Corp. saying she had no choice but remain with the ship.

“We have been given no option to leave we have to stay on board. Myself and my family are worried and scared of what will happen next,” she wrote. ABC did not identify her.

Health authorities said everyone who remains on board has been cleared of the virus.

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"We’ve had the isolation procedures long enough, we’ve not seen new cases, we also understand the medical capability on this ship, so for all of those reasons, we have formed the view that the ship is now in a position to set sail,” New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.

State police are investigating whether the ship's management downplayed potential virus cases before passengers disembarked.

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Police ordered all foreign cruise ships to leave the state in late March, fearful that sick crews could overwhelm Sydney hospitals.

A person, bottom right, looks over the balcony of a cabin on the cruise ship Ruby Princess in Wollongong, on April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Carnival Australian President Sture Myrmell said the ship had initially refused to leave because “we had to prioritize the health and well-being of the crew.”

“We did not want the ship to leave Australia until the health of the crew could be stabilized properly. It was just too risky,” Myrmell said in a video statement.

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Dozens of infected crew were left behind in Sydney, either in hospitals or under enforced quarantine in hotels.

The ship’s doctor, Ilse Von Watzdorf, told the first day of a state government inquiry on Wednesday that she was surprised health authorities had allowed passengers to leave in Sydney before the test results were known.

Von Watzdorf gave evidence to the inquiry by video link from the ship, where she has been in quarantine.

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The ship had returned to Sydney after an 11-day cruise to New Zealand, which was regarded as a low-risk destination.