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Cruise ship crewman dies with virus-type symptoms, leaving port facing public health dilemma

Marella Dream off the east side of the Rock earlier this week. Pic by David Parody

By Eyleen Gomez, Brian Reyes and Cristina Cavilla

A crew member on a cruise ship that had spent the past week anchored off the east side of the Rock in British waters died with coronavirus-type symptoms Friday, with public health officials here refusing permission for the body to be disembarked and ordering the ship to stay away.

A Gibraltar Government spokesman told this newspaper the Malta-flag Marella Dream had alerted the port just before 7pm on Thursday about the sick crewman, asking for him to be disembarked for treatment.

The crewman, who had underlying health issues, had been on board for 28 days and was unlikely to have been infected with the virus, the port was told.

But because he had displayed symptoms consistent with Covid-19, precautions became necessary.

The port’s doctor took charge of the case in consultation with the Director of Public Health to decide how best to respond.

“The vessel’s captain in consultation with the port doctor decided that they should disembark the crew member during daylight and decided to transfer the patient at around 07.30 hours this morning [meaning Friday],” the government spokesman said.

The crewman’s condition worsened overnight however and he died at 4.47am on Friday, with the port doctor informed accordingly.

Although there were no passengers on board, the Marella Dream was carrying 560 crew members and had been anchored in British Gibraltar territorial waters for a technical stop to refuel and take on stores and spares.

When the death of the crewman was revealed in the 4pm press conference at No.6 Convent Place by the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, initial information suggested the ship would be ordered to leave British waters for fear other crew members might be infected with the virus.

“We are advised that if this is a Covid-19 case there may well be others on board infected with the virus,” Mr Picardo said.

“Therefore, acting on public health advice, we will not be allowing the body to be disembarked and will be asking the vessel to leave British Gibraltar territorial waters.”

But later a government spokesman, asked to clarify the sequence of events, said the ship had already sailed from British waters “voluntarily to carry out engine repairs”. Marine tracking websites show the ship sailed from the east side at around 10.30am.

The government spokesman confirmed that permission had been refused to disembark the body on public health grounds.

The Marella Dream was intending to return to Gibraltar waters but was also subsequently denied permission to do so.

The Coroner was not informed of the death prior to the vessel’s departure but, according to the spokesman, was later notified by the port doctor.

“It is now up to the flag state [Malta] to carry out any investigation into the death,” the government spokesman added.

A spokeswoman for Tui, the company that operates the vessel, told the Chronicle that the ship had requested medical assistance in Gibraltar and had been due to dock in port on Friday morning.

“Sadly the crew member passed away before the ship arrived,” she said.

“We are working closely with the relevant authorities and would like to express our thoughts to his friends and family at this time.”

“The crew member had underlying health issues and had not tested positive for Covid-19 and there are no positive cases of Covid-19 on board the ship.”

“The health and safety of our customers and crew remains our highest priority and instances like this are extremely rare.”

On Saturday morning, the Marella Dream docked in Malaga to disembark the remains of the crewman, described in local media reports as a 48-year old Indonesian national.

The vessel then set out to sea again, its next destination unclear.

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