MIAMI, Fla. (WBTV) - Tim and Shirley Buckler’s never-ending cruise is finally coming to an end.
The Huntersville couple told WBTV News they were finally given the ‘all clear’ from Princess Cruise Line to return to North Carolina after spending more than a month at sea.
The Buckler’s boarded the ship on March 5 heading for South America with hopes of returning on March 19.
Their trip took an unexpected turn after COVID-19 cases spiked around the world.
“They did 13 COVID-19 tests,” Tim Buckler told WBTV News on Monday. “And 12 were positive.”
The ship was carrying more than 1,000 passengers and 878 crew members and was waiting for days to get permission to dock in Miami. Seven passengers and five crew members tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the cruise line.
Now after more than a month at sea, the Buckler’s have gotten their wish to return to North Carolina.
The couple told WBTV’s Dedrick Russell they will be catching a chartered flight from Miami to Atlanta. They will then fly on another chartered flight from Atlanta to Charlotte later Tuesday evening.
CDC guidelines, which changed overnight in reference to travelers returning on cruise ships, make it clear the couple cannot fly commercial and be around other people. They can’t even drive their car home from the Charlotte airport. A car will be provided for them.
“Disembarkation will continue today with an additional nine domestic charter flights scheduled. All charters were arranged by Princess Cruises. Guests requiring shoreside medical care have been disembarked and are being treated at local and regional hospitals,” a statement from Princess Cruise read on Tuesday.
The cruise line said 90 international travelers will remain onboard the ship until travel arrangements can be made to get them home.
The Buckler’s trip was supposed to take them to South America to check an item off their bucket list.
COVID-19 wasn’t emphasized as much as it is now when they boarded the ship on March 5, but if they would have known they would not have gone on the trip.
“We talked to a lot of passengers and they were all saying that South America was the safest continent at the time,” Lewis Buckler said.
Tim Buckler says passengers and crew members contracted COVID-19 - and that’s when problems started. He says some people even died while on the ship.
The Coral Princess departed March 5 from San Antonio (Santiago) for a South America voyage which was scheduled to end in Buenos Aires on March 19.
“In response to the global spread of COVID-19, Princess Cruises announced a voluntary 60-day pause of operations on March 12, becoming one of the first companies in the leisure travel industry to take this proactive measure,” the company told WBTV News.
The couple believes there are about 60 people with COVID-19 on the ship. They are also concerned about getting the proper medicine to keep Tim Buckler healthy.
“We’re angry. We’re frightened," Shirley Buckler said. "Tomorrow we run out of medication. My husband has a serious heart problem.”
The ship docked in Miami on Saturday, April 4. Since then, the couple has been trying to find a way back home until they got good news Tuesday.
“We suggested yesterday that they give us a rental car and let us drive home - 10 plus hours we’re in our garage - we shut the door and stay self-isolated until this is over,” Shirley Buckler said.
Shirley Buckler says that request was denied. She is also frustrated that leadership is staying quiet. She says the captain has been slow with information.
“He told us he would tell us something when he knew something,” Shirley Buckler said.
The frustrating part for this couple is that they say other passengers have left the ship and have returned home since they arrive at the Port of Miami.
“Four hundred people on this ship were British,” Shirley Buckler said. “They went home on a chartered flight. The Aussies, the Germans went, but the Americans - and there are six of us on this floor - aren’t allowed to leave. What is our government thinking - they are killing us in this floating Petri dish?”
Princess Cruise sent this statement Monday regarding disembarkation:
"Princess Cruises can confirm that guest disembarkation for Coral Princess at the Port of Miami began yesterday, April 4. Disembarkation will continue today limited to those departing on chartered flights arranged by Princess Cruises to California, Australia and the United Kingdom.
"Overnight, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) communicated changes to their policy regarding post-disembarkation travel for cruise passengers, recommending no travel via commercial flights nor shared transportation with non-cruise guests. Princess Cruises continues to work tirelessly to adjust the repatriation plan to meet the new CDC requirements. This will unfortunately result in further delays in disembarkation and onward travel for many guests as we work through this complex, challenging and unfortunate situation. We express continued gratitude to our guests for their patience and understanding as we work to adapt to these new requirements.
“All guests are being screened as directed by the CDC before disembarkation of the vessel. During disembarkation, and until they reach their homes, guests are required to wear a mask and practice social distancing measures.”
The Bucklers say they also reached out to their U.S. Senators and Congresswoman Alma Adams looking for an escape before learning about their return home Tuesday.