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'Horrific': Stranded Canadian describes bid to flee Cuban island

Last Updated Feb 20, 2020 at 11:20 pm EDT

A Toronto woman who was stranded in Cayo Largo, Cuba for several days is describing a hellish account of her bid to return home, complete with elderly passengers in medical distress and cockroaches raining down on her during a nauseating six-hour ferry ride on choppy waters.

Diane, who didn’t want her last name used, was one of hundreds of Canadians who found themselves stranded after the small resort island’s only airport was shuttered due to a damaged runway.

She was scheduled to fly home on Sunday February 16, but when she headed down to the hotel lobby she noticed a post from Air Transat informing travellers that the flight was cancelled and a “contingency plan” was in the works.

A follow up note informed travellers that arrangements were being made to have them ferried off the island.

“We finally found out Wednesday afternoon that we were leaving the next day on the employee ferry,” she told CityNews.

Passengers were bused to the airport, where they passed through security and then waited for a second round of buses to take them to the marina.

“We are in line (to get on the buses) to go to the marina. All of a sudden right behind us … you heard a thud and the ground shook, and it’s cement, and people are screaming. And this man, he’s 74-years-old, and he had a (suspected) heart attack.”

“The Cubans just ran around, they were yelling, ‘Medico, medico,’ I think they thought he passed out at first. But even still he had hit his head. The Canadians started alternating (CPR chest compressions).”

Air Transat confirmed that one of its passengers suffered a seizure at the airport and was transported to hospital by ambulance.

“As it is the case for any situation involving our passengers, we will not give out any other information for confidentiality reasons,” Air Transat spokesperson Marie-Christine Pouliot said.

CityNews has reached out to the Canadian consulate in Cuba for an update on the man’s condition but hasn’t yet received a response.

Later Thursday, Global Affairs Canada confirmed that the man died.

“We offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the Canadian citizen who died in Cuba,” Global Affairs spokesperson Guillaume Berube said. “Consular services are being provided to the family of the individual. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”

Diane said she bonded with other travellers over their shared experience and claims she learned that the man ran out of heart medication while waiting to return home.

“Many people had ran out of medication and that’s what happened to this gentleman,” she said. “He was there alone.”

“They were able to give him some (medication) there in replacement, but not all of it,” she said.

“Everybody is together and talking because we are all stranded, it’s a tiny island.”

After witnessing the disturbing medical incident, Diane said several buses arrived to take passengers to the marina.

“We are now on the bus to the marina, we are getting off the bus, there’s a mariachi band, it was just surreal.”

Pouliot stressed that Air Transat “communicated regularly” with its passengers and said representatives from both Transat and Hola Sun were present on site.

“A few passengers expressed concern about the amount of medication they had with them,” she added. “Tour operator representatives on site contacted a doctor on the island and additional medication was provided to clients who requested it.”

Choppy waters and cockroaches

“We finally get on this ship with armed guards, and apparently they are on every ship so that the Cubans don’t jump off and try to leave,” Diane explained.

“There are cockroaches throughout the whole boat, they’re falling on us.”

The nightmarish travel experience was cruelly elongated when Diane claims one of the ferry’s engines died.

“It’s supposed to be a four-hour (ride) to the mainland, the one engine cuts out half way through, there’s an oil leak. We are down to one engine, so it went to a six-hour boat ride with cockroaches.”

“It was absolutely horrific, that boat and having bugs dropping on us. And it’s a choppy ride, they gave out Gravol to all of us.”

When the ferry finally reached its destination the passengers were ushered onto more buses for the hour-long ride to Havana airport.

“It took a total of like 16 or 17 hours from the moment we left the hotel,” Diane explained.

“We got on (the plane), they gave us a free meal, they gave us a free drink, they were very accommodating,” she added.

Canadians return home

In an email to CityNews, Air Transat says 160 passengers have so far returned home after boarding the ferry off the island and flying home from Havana airport.

“A Transat representative accompanied them throughout the journey. Passengers returned safely to Canada, to Toronto specifically, last night,” Air Transat said.

“We have two other groups who are currently on vacation at Cayo Largo, and who will get back home as planned by the end of the week.

“These vacationers are not in a precarious situation, they are currently enjoying their stay and will return to Canada in the same way as the passengers who left yesterday. 186 passengers will return to Montreal on Friday, and 58 to Toronto this weekend.”

Despite those assurances, Diane said she’s still worried about fellow travellers who remain on the island.

“We had a woman with a rare cancer I think she’s still there,” she said. “A woman with a kidney transplant who will be out of medicine Friday who is still there.”

Diane said passengers erupted in applause when they finally touched ground at Pearson Airport.

“I wish I hadn’t gone,” she concluded. “And won’t be going back.”