The MS Rotterdam was sent to rescue passengers on the MS Zaandam.

Marco Bello/Reuters

When Holland America’s MS Zaandam cruise ship was stricken with a coronavirus outbreak onboard, the MS Rotterdam was dispatched to provide aid. 

But crew members on the Rotterdam told Business Insider they felt blindsided when they were tasked with taking on hundreds of Zaandam passengers — and risking exposure to COVID-19.

“The Rotterdam was told it was on a humanitarian mission to bring supplies to the Zaandam,” the crew member said. “Days later, while at sea, it all changed.”

A Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider that crew members were “offered the chance to not go and stay in a shoreside hotel” before the Rotterdam left Puerto Vallarta.

“The new plans were presented to crew and anyone who did not want to assist didn’t have to with no repercussions,” the Holland America spokesperson said, referring to the decision to bring Zaandam passengers onboard the Rotterdam.

A total of 250 individuals — mostly crew members and passengers on the Zaandam — have experienced COVID-19-like symptoms since March 22. Five people, including one Zaandam crew member, have died.

The cruise line is still working on ensuring “the repatriation of crew that are not required to remain on the ship for essential operations during this period,” a Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider.

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The MS Rotterdam slipped away from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico around 3 p.m. on March 22, departing on what would become a rescue mission. The Holland America cruise ship, with around 611 crew members on board, had been tasked with sailing to meet its sister ship, the MS Zaandam, off the coast of Panama.

The Zaandam was stricken with a then-undiagnosed coronavirus outbreak, and the Rotterdam had been assigned to provide the ship with medical supplies and COVID-19 tests. At that time, there were 13 guests and 29 crew on the Zaandam, suffering from influenza-like symptoms. Those numbers would swell in the coming days. And, according to a leaked March 25 memo, Holland America’s initial plan — to supply the Zaandam with additional supplies — would begin to morph as the Rotterdam drew closer and closer to its destination. 

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Now, Rotterdam crew members — many of whom are still stuck onboard the ships — say they are unhappy with the way that Holland America handled the rescue operation. Three crew members onboard the ship told Business Insider they felt they had been kept in the dark about the Rotterdam’s mission, and left feeling unsafe. These concerns from crew members come about at a time where cruise line employees around the world are experiencing more uncertainty than ever about their personal safety and job security, due to the coronavirus.

“Holland America Line is working on final details as to where the ships will lay up until operations resume and the repatriation of crew that are not required to remain on the ship for essential operations during this period,” a Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider, regarding the crew members still on board the Zaandam and the Rotterdam.

The Zaandam and the Rotterdam.

LUIS ACOSTA / Contributor / Getty Images

Ultimately, hundreds of guests and crew members would fall ill on the Zaandam. Four elderly male passengers died on the vessel, with three of those deceased individuals testing positive for COVID-19. The Associated Press reported that 50-year-old Indonesian crew member Wiwit Widarto also died Wednesday. Widarto is the first confirmed casualty among the ship’s crew members. He had been transported to a Florida hospital on April 2.

“Holland America Line can confirm that, sadly, a Zaandam crew member who was taken to a local hospital on April 2 passed away April 8,” a Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and fellow crew members.”

Initially, Rotterdam crew members said, Holland America characterized the rendezvous with the Zaandam as a chance to resupply the ship.

“Before the ship left Puerto Vallarta crew were offered the chance to not go and stay in a shoreside hotel,” a Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider. “No one did. The needs aboard Zaandam changed after Rotterdam was underway and additional support was needed.”

Later, on March 26, it was announced that the Rotterdam would also be taking on the Zaandam’s still healthy passengers. Rotterdam crew members became concerned, given that the coronavirus has an incubation period of up to 14 days in which victims can remain largely asymptomatic.

Roger Frizzell, the chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., said that “the company’s goal was to protect guests and crew alike.”

But Rotterdam crew members said tensions flared on board, with Holland America President Orlando Ashford and Capt. Rik Krombeen, the director of nautical operations, singled out for criticism because of what one crew member characterized as “misinformation and non-transparency.”

One crew member spoke of a feeling that the cruise line was taking “healthy crew members from all over the world” and dropping them “in the middle of the virus.” 

‘The priority is the guest’

Holland America released a memo to Rotterdam crew members, detailing why it had initially claimed that the rendezvous with the Zaandam would simply involve an exchange of medical supplies.

“At the time Rotterdam left Puerto Vallarta, the situation on board Zaandam was not as severe as it is now,” the March 25 memo reads. “Unfortunately, it escalated very rapidly, and because it is impacting our fellow crew members a lot more than our guests, our ability to operate the ship with guests in quarantine is at serious risk.”

For that reason, the memo said, crew members were not “given an option to transfer to the Eurodam” at Puerto Vallarta.

The memo went on to say that Rotterdam crew members would not “be asked to do something that they don’t want to do,” although Rotterdam crew members speaking to Business Insider expressed skepticism. One crew member said that they felt they would be jeopardizing their job by isolating in their quarters.

“The new plans were presented to crew and anyone who did not want to assist didn’t have to with no repercussions,” a Holland America spokesperson ” They were asked to remain in their staterooms out of an abundance of caution and in alignment with their concerns to protect their health. The majority of crew volunteered to participate with assisting Zaandam. A small number elected not to.”

“We would like you to think about your fellow team members on board Zaandam and the guests who are elderly and need your help, and what one would hope they would do for the Rotterdam team if you ended up in the same situation — as that could have been easily been the case,” the memo read.

One Rotterdam crew member said that they watched as colleagues fell ill in the days after the transfer of passengers.

“My friends have fever, the doctors said they may have Corona,” the crew member said. They added that they felt that COVID-19 tests were not being given to crew members. There are nine confirmed cases of the virus on the Zaandam so far, but Holland America has not specified whether the COVID-19-positive individuals are crew or passengers.

The Zaandam docks in Port Everglades.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Holland America and its parent company Carnival successfully negotiated for “fit to travel” passengers to disembark the two ships in Port Everglades, and now the majority of passengers have been allowed off the vessels. But that agreement specifically did not apply to crew members, with the exception of the critically ill Widarto. 

The vast majority of the crew members on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam are not from the United States. A Holland America spokesperson told Business Insider that citizens of the Philippines and Indonesia make up a large portion of the crew, along with individuals from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.

A Rotterdam crew member said that, as of April 10, there have been no announcements about when or where the remaining crew will eventually disembark. 

“Nothing was mentioned about where we are going after all the guests disembark,” one crew member said.

The Rotterdam and the Zaandam have since left Port Everglades, according to the website VesselFinder.com. And crew members still onboard the ships say it is unclear where they will end up. A Holland America spokesperson confirmed that the Zaandam has sailed from Port Everglades in order to “complete extensive sanitation measures and under-go a 14-day quarantine as approved by the US CDC.”

“This includes crew maintaining isolation who are not required for essential ship operations,” the spokesperson said.

One Rotterdam crew member said there has been frustration over a “lack of communication from the ship staff” that they said has characterized the atmosphere on the vessel since it departed from Mexico.

“The Rotterdam was told it was on a humanitarian mission to bring supplies to the Zaandam,” the crew member said. “The crew were behind this mission, as it did not put us in harm’s way. Days later, while at sea, it all changed. None of the concerns for the crews safety had been listened to.”

Read Holland America’s full statement:

“Holland America Line can confirm that, sadly, a Zaandam crew member who was taken to a local hospital on April 2 passed away April 8.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and fellow crew members.  

“Before the ship left Puerto Vallarta crew were offered the chance to not go and stay in a shoreside hotel. No one did. The needs aboard Zaandam changed after Rotterdam was underway and additional support was needed. The new plans were presented to crew and anyone who did not want to assist didn’t have to with no repercussions. They were asked to remain in their staterooms out of an abundance of caution and in alignment with their concerns to protect their health. The majority of crew volunteered to participate with assisting Zaandam. A small number elected not to.”

Are you a cruise ship crew member or passenger? Email acain@businessinsider.com.

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