''If we hadn't got out of Italy, we would have died because the coronavirus situation snowballed day by day''.
These were the words of Whangārei man John Trotman who, with wife Pat, were lucky to fly out of the Italian epicentre of Covid-19 after a troubled few days on board the cruise liner Costa Pacifica from South America to Europe.
The Trotmans set sail from Argentina on March 3 and were planning to get off in Marseille, southern France, and travel to Poland and Germany but French and Spanish authorities refused to allow the ship to berth in their countries due to coronavirus.
The ship was forced to sail to Genoa in northern Italy, then to Rome where passengers were given an hour to pack their belongings and taken to a hotel in a bus on a freezing night last week.
"Nobody wanted to go to Genoa because it was full of virus. The ship could have sailed to Southampton. There wouldn't have been any trouble but they took us to Genoa and the other Kiwis were put on a bus for a six-hour ride to Rome from where they flew to London.
"We stayed on board and sailed to Rome and the New Zealand Embassy said for us to go to the hotel otherwise we'll miss our flight. If we hadn't got out of Rome, we would have died over there. We were terrified," Trotman said.
The 80-year-old has multiple sclerosis and heart conditions and said Rome was unlike what they encountered during previous visits.
"We've come back from a situation where we had no say whether to live or die. But we're alive. It's a miracle come true. It really is. We know what it was like over there.
Unfortunately, there are still hundreds and thousands of people who can't get back home," he said.
When they arrived outside their hotel in Rome, he said there were already 200 people in freezing cold waiting to be checked in.
After they got into their room, they were given a plate of cold rice, pieces of ham, peas, carrots and water.
"We stayed in the hotel and wore masks and gloves, not wanting to meet up with anyone. The roads were totally empty, cars were parked everywhere, and there were police patrols.
"It was like a scene from one of those horror movies— suddenly everyone was dead."
Trotman said the media publicity helped put pressure on the cruise liner and the New Zealand Government, otherwise they may still be stranded.
He and his wife lost between $8000 and $10,000 and have been told by their insurance company their loss would not be covered, even though they booked their flights and cruise in August last year.
Asked whether the experience has put them off from going on a cruise in future, Trotman said: "You never say never."
The couple arrived in Auckland on Friday morning and drove back home to Whangārei where both are in self-isolation.
"Home is paradise. We're in lockdown but that's okay."
Travelling New Zealanders are requested to register their details on SafeTravel, which allows MFAT to contact them with the most current advice.
There are more than 23,000 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel, of which more than 10,000 say they are living overseas rather than travelling.
As of yesterday, Italy had 101,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 11,500 deaths and more than 1000 cases fully recovered.