Last March, 235 Americans boarded the Costa Luminosa cruise ship headed for Europe. They left Fort Lauderdale on March 5. At that time, there were only about 200 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States.
But as they were crossing the Atlantic, word spread that three passengers who left the ship during port calls in the Caribbean tested positive for COVID. And one had died.
This is the story of what happened next. A flight back home, that had all the ingredients of a super-spreading event, and how the agency tasked with controlling such outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, knew about it and did not stop it.
By the time the Costa Luminosa was halfway across the Atlantic, passengers we spoke to say it seemed like everyone was coughing.
It was supposed to be a 20-day cruise from Florida to Italy. Bob and Sue Anderson were travelling to visit family in Europe.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Those early days in March, you know, COVID was starting. But you made a decision that you were gonna go on a cruise.
Bob Anderson: We wanted to travel to see our granddaughter. We didn't really worry about it.
Sue Anderson: And it wasn't until we got on the ship and two or three days into the cruise where everything then blew up.
Sharyn Alfonsi: At what point did you start feeling sick?
Bob Anderson: Oh, probably a week into the trip. It was fatigue. I just didn't feel like doing anything. And then I got a tightness in the chest, lost my sense of taste, my sense of smell.
Sue Anderson: I told Bob, I said, "I feel like I'm in the petri dish of the COVID."
Kelly Edge had been traveling with her husband, Woody. He had been sick in bed for five days when everyone on board was ordered to quarantine in their cabins.
Kelly Edge: We are captive.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Captive.
Kelly Edge: You can't come in with a helicopter. We're in the middle of the ocean. And my husband's burning up.
Passengers began to call home asking for help from members of Congress, reporters and family.
Kelly Edge: There was a-- conversations from people from the-- the states that were contacting all government agencies. You know? They had very sick family members on the ship. And they knew that-- that they needed to get their family off ASAP.
The state department got involved and on day 13 of the cruise passengers learned they would be allowed off the ship in Marseille. France had just started a nationwide lockdown. The Americans had to gather in this ship lounge to be checked by French medics before they were allowed to board buses for the airport.
Kelly Edge: This is where, in my opinion, it became criminal.
Criminal, she says, because the passengers, many in their 70s and showing symptoms of COVID, waited in the locked buses for five hours while paperwork was sorted out by U.S. diplomats.
It was midnight when they finally got on the jet hired by the cruise line.
Phone video from Jenny Catron on the plane: "So…as you can hear everybody's coughing..."
This is Jenny Catron. She hoped the worst was behind them as she settled into seat 26D.
Phone video from Jenny Catron on the plane: "Here we go. We are hoping that when we get back to the United States, that these people will be able to get some medical help… finally."
The jet took off for Atlanta at 2am. It wasn't lost on many that their destination, Atlanta, is the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Atlanta airport is also one of 20 quarantine stations the CDC has around the country to screen ill travellers.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you expect that when that plane landed in Atlanta, that you would be taken to quarantine?
Kelly Edge: 100%.
While at sea, passengers saw news reports about COVID outbreaks on other cruise ships including the Diamond Princess in Japan and the Grand Princess in California. In both cases the CDC ordered hundreds of those passengers to quarantine at U.S. military bases.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What was the scene on the plane like?
Bob Anderson: Someone described it as a flight from hell.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Did it feel like that?
Bob Anderson: Yes. I kept looking at the man and woman to my left coughing, and coughing and coughing...
It became nine and half hours of misery. The Andersons were in row 32. Kelly and Woody Edge were in the middle of the plane.
Kelly Edge: And then it-- and then it happened. It was behind me about ten rows. And a man started to collapse. And his wife was, like, "Help. Help. Please help. We need a doctor."
Jenny Catron was several rows behind her. The experienced Red Cross volunteer who attended nursing school was already trying to help.
Jenny Catron: He was glowing. He had so much sweat-- he was pale, pale-ish green.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You didn't think, "Oh, my gosh: This guy might have COVID" right away?
Jenny Catron: I was pretty sure that at that point, that we all had COVID.
Kelly Edge noticed Jenny was on her own and got up to help too.
Kelly Edge: And then, on the other side of me to the right, and behind me about two rows, this man started going into some kind of respiratory distress. So, I say to Jenny, "I think you need to go for this man. I can-- what-- what's goin' on here, and I can do this." And she said, "Just-- just hold his hand… just reassure him." And all of a sudden, this man comes walkin' up. He's heading like he's going to the bathroom. And he just starts, like, a weeble-wobble. And he just hits his head on the wall. And he falls to the ground.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So, it's one, two, three, four.
Kelly Edge: They're going, like-- they're going, like, fast now. We're layin' them out--
Sharyn Alfonsi: In the aisles? Or?
Kelly Edge: In the like bulkheads. You know.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Where are the flight attendants?
Kelly Edge: In the back. They just didn't know what to do either, you know. They were very scared.
Jenny Catron: The captain comes out, and we start discussing whether or not to divert the flight, we still had another four hours to Atlanta. And if we had landed in Bermuda they could have still been sitting on the plane for another six hours where they debate whether or not they're gonna let people into the hospitals there.
So the flight continued to Atlanta. But when the plane carrying the sick and exhausted passengers landed at 6:43 in the morning, the doors stayed closed.
Kelly Edge: And then we finally hear from the pilot that, "Well, apparently nobody knew we were coming. Nobody was prepared."
Sharyn Alfonsi: Does that make any sense? Based on the calls you guys are making from the ship? You guys are waving flags, calling the media.
Kelly Edge: The Atlanta news was there at the airport to meet us.
Channel 2, WSB, Atlanta: Lori, you know I can't even imagine what it must have been like to be on that plane…
So where was the help? 60 Minutes spoke with the State Department, Customs and Border Protection and the CDC on background. We were told the CDC knew the plane was coming, but didn't make plans to quarantine passengers. Instead the decision was made to treat them like any other Americans returning from Europe in March: by having them fill out a health questionnaire.
But about an hour before the plane was to touch down, the CDC's plan blew up.
Remember earlier, when we told you about those French medics who screened the passengers in the ship lounge? It turns out the French tested four Americans for COVID, and three were positive and on the plane.
That news surprised the CDC. They had to scramble together a team to go to the jet. Jenny Catron got sick of waiting.
Jenny Catron: And at that point I just get on the phone and I called 911.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You called 911 from the plane?
Jenny Catron: Yes.
Jenny Catron's 911 call
Operator: Atlanta Airport 911.
Jenny Catron: My name is Jennifer Catron. I am on a plane that we just came over from France.
Jenny Catron: I have nine medical emergencies that I had to handle on this plane from France over to here …
Jenny Catron: We are waiting for the CDC because we have possible coronavirus cases on board …
Jenny Catron: I have people passing out…
Three more hours passed before the doors finally opened.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Who are the first people to board the plane?
Jenny Catron: There were two or three different girls. They said that they were from the CDC. They were dressed in plastic-- They're like, "Okay, well, we need these three people that had tested positive in Marseilles. So they get those three people off. And she goes, "Okay, now I need the people that have fevers and coughs." And the steward looks at 'em she goes, "Honey, they're all sick."
The three positive passengers were taken to a hotel. Everybody else went to a cargo building where they were checked by the CDC for fever and filled out a short questionnaire. Nobody was given a COVID test. And some passengers told us they saw people with symptoms get through.
Kelly Edge: There were people, get this, their temperature was too high, so the CDC had them sit in chairs and wait and see if it got lower.
Jenny Catron: So I'm trying really hard not to, like, second-guess. And I was so--
Sharyn Alfonsi: You're thinking, "This is the CDC. They've got this."
Jenny Catron: That's what I'm trying to tell myself.
Sharyn Alfonsi: "And it's in their hands now."
Jenny Catron: I'm trying to tell myself that.
Sharyn Alfonsi: But your mind is saying what?
Jenny Catron: "You're not doing it right."
Passengers were then loaded onto buses for a short drive to baggage claim. And that was that. They were all free to go wherever they wanted.
Kelly Edge: Like, half of it was the walking wounded and I watched them all leave.
Sharyn Alfonsi: This plane comes in, people are sick, they're fainting, they're coughing and then they're let into the main terminal of one of the busiest airports in America.
Bob Anderson: It was crazy.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Was it lost on anybody? Or were you guys kinda looking at each other like, "I can't believe they let us go?"
Bob Anderson: Exactly. Those are the exact feelings we had. Utter surprise and bewilderment.
Some passengers removed their masks. Others hit the food court. Within hours more than 200 of them, exposed to COVID or already sick with it, boarded commercial flights to 17 states and Canada. Including the Andersons.
Sue Anderson: We felt guilty. We had our masks. We had our gloves. And we sat down. And the seat next to me was empty. And I said, "Please don't let anybody sit next to me."
Bob Anderson tested positive for COVID after he flew home to Utah. Kelly Edge's husband tested positive after he took a flight to Miami. Three people on the plane were put on ventilators days later. And two other passengers who flew home, Tom Sheehan who was in seat 24J and Herman Boehm who was in 10A, both died nine days later.
We wanted to know what the CDC was thinking, but they declined our request for an interview. We did obtain 160 pages of emails from the agency about the operation through the Freedom of Information Act, but all the sections about decision making were redacted.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How does this happen?
Dr. Ali Khan: Undoubtedly you know I would say this sort of constitutes public health malpractice. That you have individuals who you know are exposed, potentially multiple people infected within that group, and then you put 'em in the busiest airport in the world.
Dr. Ali Khan is the dean of the University of Nebraska school of public health. He is a former director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Should any of those passengers been allowed to get on commercial flights at that point?
Dr. Ali Khan: So those individuals definitely should have stayed in Atlanta and been appropriately isolated or quarantined based on their circumstances.
Sharyn Alfonsi: We knew enough at that point to know that was a bad decision.
Dr. Ali Khan: Oh no, not only did we know enough at that point, we had already acted on that knowledge multiple times. We know that what was the right thing to do was with the Grand Princess and other cruise ships, that those individuals need to get off the ship, needed to be monitored separately-- in quarantine before they could go out and about their way.
The cruise line would not share the passenger list with us, but we were able to track down 64 of the Americans. And of those 64, 45 of them told us they tested positive for COVID soon after coming home.
Dr. Ali Khan: This is what the agency plans for day in and day out on how to do this. I mean, this should've been second nature of how to make this happen.
The CDC alerted state health departments, but some passengers told us their states never followed up with them and didn't do any contact tracing. The lack of a unified response means nobody knows exactly how many passengers from that flight from hell brought home the coronavirus. Or how many unsuspecting people they infected with COVID along the way.
Produced by Guy Campanile. Associate producer, Lucy Hatcher. Field producer, Sabina Castelfranco. Broadcast associates, Mabel Kabani and Elizabeth Germino.