They're the local couple who quickly came to personify the early days of the coronavirus crisis and the burgeoning fear that gripped the entire world, on the world’s last cruise.
She's a best-selling author. He's a documentary filmmaker.
Gay and Phil Courter have traveled the world together while raising a family in their Crystal River home and building careers telling other people’s stories.
Little did they know when they boarded the Diamond Princess in Japan, they were about to become the first witnesses to the story of our time.
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As the cruise industry figures out how to safely set sail again, ABC Action News Anchor Paul LaGrone sat down with Gay and Phil Courter at their home in as they recounted the tense moments onboard a cruise ship that suddenly became a giant quarantine case study.
The Courters boarded the Diamond Princess in Japan for a month-long voyage to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. They sailed throughout Southeast Asia with stops in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and back to Japan.
They had just finished the cruise when the first signs of real trouble began.
"There were some little signs that this new novel coronavirus was beginning to affect the world in ways that we were just becoming aware of," Gay said. "The actual discovery of the problem was a huge shock."
"When we returned to Japan, the first stop was Okinawa, they did something very unusual, they made everyone get off the ship including the crew," Gay added.
The couple said they initially thought there would just be a delay, but the next morning they woke up to an announcement from the captain. He told them not to leave their rooms.
They were now in quarantine in Japan for 14 days.
"We were pulling into the dock in Yokohama and we went out on our balcony and we saw a scene from a sci-fi movie," Gay recalled. "There were ambulances, military vehicles, fire vehicles, everybody in hazmat suits, of different colors, white ones green, red, military personnel, a whole line up of press, helicopters circling… and it was unbelievable… it was like a nightmare."
Phil said that was when the couple first started to take the idea that they could get sick seriously.
"On the very first count they found 10 people who were infected already," Phil said. "And they’re taking them off in ambulances and we thought if we get sick what’s going to happen. One or both of us will be taken to a Japanese hospital somewhere in Japan, we don’t speak Japanese how are we going to communicate."
"We were more frightened than I’d ever been in my whole life," Gay said. "We talked about it, is this how we are going to die?"
Stuck inside their cabin, with no clear end in sight, the Courter’s relied on their journalistic instincts to tell the story that they not only witnessed but were at the center of, as the chaos swirled around them.
"We made a conscious decision to contact the press and let them know what was going on," Phil said. "We took it as a mission to get the Americans off the ship and get them out of there."
The couple said they stayed busy to handle being stuck on the ship while facing the unknown.
"We stayed very busy. We went to work with a PR firm in the states to organize interviews," Phil said. "I think just by staying very busy, it kept us from being in a panic mode"
"You have to understand this was a worldwide news cycle," Gay added. "So we were talking to Russia, China, Europe. My son made a spreadsheet with the time zones everywhere and we carved our sleep but sometimes we would get up at 4 a.m. to hit the news cycle"
Working and surviving, the Courters managed to stay healthy. They never got sick.
On the morning of February 17, U.S. military planes showed up to take the Americans back to the states.The Courters boarded the plane, but their journey home was anything but smooth. They learned in the air that some of the passengers on the plane had tested positive.
"We didn’t know about the sick people until I’m standing in the porta-potty line, and this guy taps the woman behind me and said you are positive," Gay said.
They landed at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas where they were quarantined again for another 14 days inside these military barracks that were nothing like their luxury cruise cabin. A moldy, musty room, where they were confined and the only interaction they had with others were people in hazmat suits coming to collect their trash.
"We were there by government order. There were U.S. marshals with guns surrounding us and here we are old ladies and we are the prisoners," Gay said. "Never in my life have I been so restricted. It does something to you, it makes change a lot of your personality."
Finally just as they thought they were going home — another setback.
"They put a stop to our departure," Phil said. "The mayor of San Antonio, Texas decided he didn’t want any of us going through his city and tainting everyone."
"And people who had their suitcases down by the buses went crazy, one guy tries to climb the fence people were screaming crying," Gay said.
Once again the Courters were at the mercy of an uncontrollable force. But, after a lot of phone calls and negotiations, they finally arrived home to a world that was nothing like the one they left.
"I think it allowed us to say out loud what we were thinking about how much we loved each other how much we appreciated getting through this together to have the hard talks," Gay said. "And I don’t think we’ve ever been happier, in a strange way."
As for cruising again, they are already planning on it.
"It has to be done safely, we have to come up with a way of doing it safely," Phil said. "Vaccines are the way of doing it safely."
"I don’t understand why there is even a conflict about it," Gay added. "Ever since I was a child I’ve had a vaccine passport, since I’ve had yellow fever or tetanus shots required for travel, what we do in America is one thing, but if you want to go to Italy or Spain or Japan you have to be vaccinated."
Using her gift of words, Gay Courter has already penned her new novel that chronicles in suspenseful detail her and her husband’s true story, their day to day fight to survive, and their mission to live to tell world about the first major cCOVID-19 outbreak outside of China.
The book is aptly titled “Quarantine."