Americans stranded at Pakistan airport after cruise ship was denied entry to multiple countries over coronavirus fears

Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
·6 min read

A plane full of Americans and Canadians was stranded on a tarmac at an airport in Karachi, Pakistan, for several hours on Thursday after it was turned away from multiple countries due to fears of the coronavirus, according to a family member of two of the passengers.

Kelly Chrjapin, whose parents were among those on the flight, said the plane contained more than 250 people, all of whom were American and Canadian nationals who had been traveling on the cruise ship MS Westerdam. One passenger from that boat tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month. Chrjapin said the State Department formed a task force to address the situation and that her parents were informed the plane would be flying to Amsterdam on Thursday afternoon after over seven hours in Pakistan.

The delay in Pakistan was the latest twist in an extended journey for the Westerdam passengers. Chrjapin said her parents, Victor and Karen Chrjapin, are both in their late 60s and retired. She identified her father as a former Navy officer.

A helicopter approaches the Westerdam cruise ship
A helicopter approaching the Westerdam cruise ship in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Wednesday. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’m in a complete panic,” Kelly Chrjapin told Yahoo News on Thursday afternoon before she received word her parents would fly from Pakistan to the Netherlands.

Chrjapin said she hasn’t heard from her parents since approximately 4 p.m. ET, when she said her mother texted that the pilot announced they were set to take off for Amsterdam.

“I have not been able to get anything back from them since,” Chrjapin said. “I assume they had to turn their phones off and went wheels up.”

While she believes the plane has departed from Pakistan, Chrjapin is still concerned about next steps.

“Now the question is getting them out of Amsterdam. That’s a whole other kettle of fish,” she said.

Chrjapin’s parents could not be immediately reached for comment.

A woman views the MS Westerdam cruise ship
A woman viewing the MS Westerdam cruise ship near Sihanoukville, Cambodia, earlier this week. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images )

The U.S. State Department and the Canadian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A statement from the cruise ship operator Holland America released to Yahoo News late Thursday afternoon confirmed the details of the circuitous route.

“En route the flight was unexpectedly instructed by Turkish officials to turn around midway through its journey,” the statement said. “The plane stopped for refueling at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan and then departed at 2:10 a.m. for Amsterdam, where we have received approval from the Dutch Government for landing.”

Kelly Chrjapin said her parents boarded the cruise ship, which is operated by Holland America Line, in Singapore last month. According to NBT World, a government-run media outlet in Thailand, the ship had 2,257 passengers and crew members on board and left Taiwan on Feb. 4 after an earlier stop in Hong Kong. NBT reported the boat was denied entry to Thailand “as a vessel suspected of carrying passengers contracting the 2019 novel coronavirus.”

According to Chrjapin, the failed effort to dock in Thailand was part of a “series of denials” the ship faced as it attempted to travel to multiple countries.

“Thailand was one of them, the Philippines was another, and then there were six or seven ports in Japan that were scheduled. They were denied entry,” she said, adding, “Guam declined to allow them in, at which point they were just kind of floating for five days or so.”

Eventually, Cambodia began to accept some of the passengers and her parents were staying in a hotel in Phnom Penh, Chrjapin said. Initially, she said, there was a plan for the passengers to be flown from Cambodia to Malaysia before going home.

However, she said Malaysia stopped accepting the passengers when one of them, an 83-year-old woman, tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Kuala Lumpur from Cambodia. On Feb. 16, Reuters reported the woman was the first from the Westerdam to test positive.

Chrjapin said all the other passengers tested negative in Cambodia and that, after five days there, they were informed they would be flown out of the country on Wednesday evening. That flight, which was a charter, was scheduled to go through Istanbul and end in Detroit. Chrjapin provided Yahoo News with a photo of her parents’ itinerary for the trip.

According to Chrjapin, about halfway through the trip to Istanbul, the flight did a turnabout and landed in Karachi. She said she heard from her parents via text message shortly after noon ET on Thursday and learned they were stuck on the tarmac in Karachi.

“We’re on a tarmac in Pakistan. Help,” Chrjapin quoted her parents’ text.

Chrjapin subsequently called the State Department via a hotline for Americans in distress. She said she was initially disconnected, and directed to a voicemail box, before being sent to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Someone there directed her to the consulate in Karachi. Chrjapin said she was frustrated with the State Department response, particularly because the first person she spoke to insisted the matter wasn’t “a State Department issue.”

“They were complete jerks,” said Chrjapin, later adding, “I’ve been dealing with embassies and State for four hours. … Of course this is a State issue. How is it that the emergency line at the State Department can’t do anything?”

Ultimately, Chrjapin said someone at the consulate in Karachi informed her shortly before 2 p.m. ET that a task force had been formed to address the issue. At that point, the plane had been stranded for about two hours. Chrjapin said someone with the task force told her it was unclear what would happen after the plane arrives in Amsterdam.

“They’re like, we’re working on it, we just figured out Amsterdam,” she said of the task force. “That’s all well and good, but you’ve still got people ... 200 or so are Americans. Deal with it.”

A U.S. consular official who answered a call from Yahoo News on an emergency number provided to family members was aware of the flight with Westerdam passengers bound for Turkey, but declined to answer questions about the Americans’ current location, referring queries to public affairs. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the situation.

Chrjapin’s parents had been describing their journeys on a Facebook page. In posts on Wednesday and Thursday, Karen Chrjapin said all the passengers who were in Cambodia, other than the one woman, tested negative for the virus. Karen also described the plan to fly to the U.S. via Istanbul.

“We will have gone around the world during this trip. Good thing my hair is already completely gray,” she wrote.

Jenna McLaughlin and Sharon Weinberger contributed reporting to this story

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