This cargo ship's captain died aboard. The crew was stuck at sea for weeks, with a potential Covid outbreak on its hands
Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT) June 20, 2021
(CNN)Captain Angelo Capurro started showing symptoms of Covid-19 on his second day at sea. Within five days, the 61-year-old skipper was confined to his cabin, unable to get out of bed.
Six days later he was dead -- leaving the MV Ital Libera cargo ship without a shipmaster, carrying a dead body the crew had no means to store, and with a potential Covid outbreak aboard.
For six weeks, the Italian-flagged ship was stranded off the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, unable to find a port that would take a corpse during the pandemic despite repeated pleas for assistance.
Finally, this month, the captain's body was returned to his native Italy, where his grieving family are seeking answers about his death and treatment at sea, in a case that has once again thrown a spotlight on the conditions of seafarers during the pandemic.
Recovering his body, however, may not provide the answers the family is hoping for.
There was no suitable place to keep a corpse on the Ital Libera, meaning Capurro's body remained in a storage room for six weeks.
"Without going into details, we all know how we can find it," said the family's lawyer Raffaella Lorgna. "I don't even know if we'll be able to do the autopsy."
Death at sea
Capurro had worked on the ocean his entire life, both on cargo ships and cruise lines. His wife, Patricia Mollard, 61, followed him around the world wherever he went for his job. They met young and "lived for each other" Lorgna said. "I can only imagine the suffering of this lady," she added. The couple lived in La Spezia, a port on the Italian Riviera, with their adult son and daughter nearby.
Capurro flew from Trieste, northeast Italy, on March 27 to captain the Ital Libera on its 25-day scheduled journey to Asia. A day earlier, he had tested negative for Covid-19. Flying through Doha and Johannesburg, he arrived in the South African port of Durban on March 28. A few days later, on April 1, the Ital Libera set sail for Singapore.
The captain started showing symptoms of Covid-19 on April 2. He was coughing non-stop and suffering from chest pains, muscle aches and shortness of breath, family members said. They quickly became worried. In emails, he became more erratic and incoherent by the day, according to his family; on the phone, his words were punctuated by a cough as he called from thousands of miles away.
By April 7, he was bed-bound in his cabin, according to his family. A sailor was assigned to bring him food and medicine. As captain of the ship, Capurro was also the designated medical officer so there was nobody else to help.
In the international shipping industry, many ships do not have dedicated medical officers on board. Instead, a seafarer with basic medical training is given the additional responsibility of administering health care. The medical responsibilities add to an already large workload for a shrinking global workforce, says Fabrizio Barcellona, the Seafarers' Section coordinator for the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), a global trade union.
Barcellona said anecdotally the number of ships operating with "manning levels" at or below what the federation regards as safe, was growing during the pandemic. Covid-era border restrictions brought in by national governments had made it very difficult for companies to get seafarers to and from ships, he said.
"The result is fewer crew to do the same amount of work. And the crew that are on board are tired, with many weeks or months over their initial contracts onboard.