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‘My fate is not to die on a cruise ship’: Brunswick Co. couple stranded on Coral Princess

Updated: Apr. 6, 2020 at 1:54 PM EDT
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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - The Coral Princess cruise ship has turned into a prison for two retired Brunswick County teachers.

Oak Island residents Katy O’Neil and John Hutton left port aboard the Coral Princess in Buenos Aires on March 5. They are still on the ship, more than a month later, unable to leave their room for the past week.

The cruise was meant to be a last hurrah of sorts before Hutton was to undergo neurosurgery on March 25.

O’Neil said he is not in good health and has run out of blood pressure medication, but neither have shown symptoms of COVID-19.

Two people died on the ship because of Coronavirus, another man died shortly after being taken off the ship by ambulance. A dozen more passengers have tested positive.

“It’s not some far fetched story I watch on TV. I’m in the middle of this. It is my story now. And I don’t want it to be somebody else’s," O’Neil said. “I don’t want to be that nice lady who was trying to feed her husband in their cabin for five days when they took him away and he died. That’s not my plan. I’ve got other plans. I need to take my husband hot air ballooning in Egypt, I need to do other things.”

The couple spent the first few days of their two-week-turned-month-long cruise dancing and dining along with the ship’s other guests.

On March 13, amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, they learned they were no longer able to get off at any remaining ports. Two days later, they were confined to their rooms.

“We still had run of the ship. We were going to dinner, going to line dance lessons and suddenly one day I’m in a ukulele lesson and they come over the speaker and say everyone please return to your cabins now. That was a week ago,” O’Neil said via video call from her balcony.

The couple planned to disembark once the ship returned to Buenos Aires and fly home from there.

They were next in line to leave when the captain announced the ship could no longer stay in port in Buenos Aires.

From there, the ship was denied port in Fort Lauderdale and was finally able to dock in Miami.

There were nearly 2,000 passengers on the ship. Some have been able to disembark while others, like O’Neil and Hutton, have been left in the dark.

“We are told nothing, nothing,” O’Neil said.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new restrictions that keep cruise ship passengers and crew arriving in the United State from boarding domestic flights.

Instead, cruise passengers and crew have to fly on charter aircraft or use private transportation.

O’Neil says they have access to a charter flight from a friend in Brunswick County, but still, they are unable to leave.

“I wish that he could. I wish there was some way to leave this, because I don’t want to leave in an ambulance. I don’t want to leave in an ambulance,” she said.

O’Neil has spent her days standing on the balcony, holding up signs hoping to draw attention to the many people who are still stuck on the ship.

“I’m just going to sit here and wait and hold my sign up and try to call attention to our plight. It’s not just me. I don’t know how many people are left on the ship because they don’t tell us anything,” she said.

The signs read, “test me,” “I’m not sick,” and “let me go.”

“I have a bird’s eye view of where sickbay stuff happens and yesterday was just a parade of ambulances going by and medical personnel," O’Neil said. "I know they’re busy. I do not want my husband to be a statistic on this ship.”

Forced to face a terrifying reality O’Neil used her last few remaining pieces of paper to write a will, sending pictures of it to family members.

“So I’m writing out my mother’s ring should go to my niece, sell my jewelry, give the money to my nephew for his kid’s college fund,” O’Neil said.

But she is determined to make it home to Brunswick County with her husband John, both healthy and ready to tell a story of strength when they return.

“I don’t want to be the story, ‘Brunswick County natives succumb to COVID on the Coral Princess,’” she said. “Anybody [who] knows me knows I’m going to keep a positive attitude, and I’m going to get through this. And it’s going to be a good story to tell, but do things for people, pass it on, pass on the good stuff."

O’Neil said she has reached out to everyone she can, including North Carolina Senator Tom Tillis and the Brunswick County Health Department.

When I asked what message WECT could share in order to help them, O’Neil left me with this.

“Don’t get to the end of your life and say you wish you would have. Do things when you can, do things now, do them when you’re able. Do nice things for other people.”

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