The “Superheroes” of the MS Braemar
Cuban specialists with great experience in the three modes of transport: maritime, automotive and air participated in the operation of docking the British cruise ship and in the disembarkation and transfer of the passengers who came on it. Juventud Rebelde invites you to learn about the experiences of the pilot who came on board and the skipper and engineer of the boat that transported him.
By Yuniel Labacena Romero
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Englishwoman Anthea Guthrie is back home. The imminent danger has passed. But the gratitude and love for the unknown people who helped her and 681 other tourists to return to their country after long days of uncertainty on board the British cruise ship MS Braemar, has been sown in her chest.
Meanwhile, expresses her appreciation, through her social networks, Cuba’s decision to allow the docking of the Fred Olsen cruise ship in the port of Mariel, in the country and all those who participated in the operation are kept under strict epidemiological surveillance.
Approximately 198.5 kilometres from Mariel, far from their homes, isolated from their families, but in the care of the medical staff of the Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre hospital in Jagüey Grande, Matanzas province, the three workers of the Unidad Empresarial de Base Prácticos de Occidente, belonging to the Empresa Prácticos de Puertos de la República de Cuba, are well.
They will have to remain there for a minimum of 14 days under epidemiological surveillance, in order to detect in time any symptoms of respiratory disease. These are the perks of the job, and of courage.
The pilot boat driver, Denis Efrén Echevarría Martínez, 35 years old, recalls how the operation was carried out, after its completion, in order to protect their health and avoid possible contagion:
“They moved us to an area where they took off our protective clothing and we quickly got on the bus that brought us here. When we arrived, they explained to us the measures that are put in place in this type of center, where we are monitored for any symptoms related to the disease.
Their phones are ringing off the hook. Family members, colleagues, friends… they are interested in your health, as much as the specialized staff that attends to you.
“I feel fine,” assures the pilot Mario Martínez Lahera, 57 years old, the only one of the Cubans who came aboard the cruise ship, and he adds: “There are good conditions here for staying, for food and medical care, with periodic check-ups of parameters such as blood pressure and temperature, three times a day.
At his side, the skipper of the boat, Alean Torres Pacheco, 21 years old, corroborates this: “They take good care of us. The nurses are, as we say in good Cuban, “up to one”, asking everything about our state of health”.
Mario Martinez Lahera, who has 31 years of experience and training, did not know the mission in depth from the beginning. He was asked if he was willing, if he felt capable, and he said yes, that he was prepared physically, psychologically and professionally.
“At first they chose another compañero – Luis Alberto Guerra Valdés, with similar experience – and me, and told us that it was a very complex mission. Then they explained to us all the details of the ship and the sick people on board,” says the man who is not only a pilot but also a captain in the merchant navy.
The mission of carrying out the entry and exit maneuvers to the port of the Mariel of MS Braemar was not too different from those he had already carried out during his 28 years of work in the port of Havana. The difficulty was in taking care to avoid contagion.
“I had to stay onboard the ship for approximately 18 hours, although the time was extended to 20 hours because the transfer of the sick had to be done more carefully, both in the port and at the airport,” he recalls.
For Alean Torres Pacheco, the skipper of the Cuban boat that would take the pilot to the ship, the mission took him by surprise: “When they told me that I had been selected, I felt a little strange, and I even got a tremendous lump in my throat. Imagine, I’ve only been working in the port for a year.
“I could barely speak. But understanding that they had confidence in me, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Of course, they explained to us what security measures we had to comply with, they gave us a vest, nasobucos [face masks), a gown, chlorine to disinfect the surfaces… With all the information in our possession, we went home”.
Denis Efrén Echevarría says that when they told him, he felt a lot of tension and thought about the risks, about his family. Then he relaxed a little. “In our schools, we are educated in the values of solidarity, compañerismo, dedication, and what better time to put them into practice than with this help.
“Of course, I only commented on the mission I was going to fulfill with the family, with my wife… It was all very discreet so that the people of the neighborhood and the colleagues at work would not be alarmed, nor would they feel panic in vain,” he assures us.
It was around four o’clock in the morning on March 18 when they arrived to take them to the port of Mariel. It had been a short night, one of great expectations, but the three of them were ready. Very fresh in Alean’s memory are the details of that early morning’s preparations:
“In a small room at the port, the specialists explained to us how to use the suit and the rest of the clothing we would wear. They dressed us. We could not touch our hands, our eyes, or break the suits they put on us.
“When the time came to board the boat to take the pilot to where the maneuver was going to be performed, we were doing everything very calmly, with a positive mindset, until we got to the cruise ship. After the pilot got on board, we left to wait for him to call us to come and get him”.
Denis’s responsibility as an engine driver was no less important. He had to ensure that the boat’s engines worked properly, that water did not enter the boat, that the temperature and vibrations were maintained, and that there was no noise so that the skipper could concentrate. The relationship between the three compañeros during the mission, Denis summarizes as follows:
“Practitioner, master and engineer are essential: we all depend on each other, and the success of one is the success of the other. We are the guarantors of the safety of the boat on the route between the intersection of the boat at sea, until the pilot performs the docking maneuver in the assigned dock. This is what happened with the British cruiser.
“We communicated with the pilot using the portable radio, once he was already on the cruise ship. He was explaining to us how things were done. On our boat, we had everything we needed on board (food, means for hygiene…), as we did not know how long the operation would take. At all times I thought a lot about the care I had to take, about my two-year-old daughter. I will not deny it: I felt a little nervous, with tension; but seeing so many grateful people saying goodbye to us, made me feel more at ease.
As they sailed to MS Braemar, each one was immersed in his own feelings and thoughts, and attentive to every detail. Mario Martinez, the most experienced of the three, showed no signs of worry, his face remained unaltered. At least, that was what Alean felt during the journey:
“We knew that the pilot was sure of what he was going to do, you could see it in his face. That gave us confidence, because one thinks of many things when one is carrying out a mission like this: I better not even count mine,” he admits.
Certainly, Mayito, as his compañeros say to the pilot, felt calm. In fact, he believes that life had prepared him for that moment and “I was confident because of all the security measures that had been taken by the Government, and because the doctors at the Mariel port took great care to put on my suit, to teach me how to change it inside the ship – because I was wearing four other suits of the highest level -, they emphasized all the measures that I had to take already on board. For all that, I was sure that my life would be guaranteed.
The confirmation that he had been chosen for the mission was given only the day before. For him, it was enough. After the crossing with Denis and Alean, around 6:00 in the morning, Mayito arrived at the side of the cruise ship, ascended the elevator to the deck, where the captain of the ship was already waiting for him, to welcome him on board, according to the navigation protocols, but without extending his hand, the first sign of the protection that the pilot would also receive from the management of the shipping company.
“After the greeting, the first thing the captain did was to thank Cuba for the gesture and then he said something like: ‘Go ahead, the ship is yours. Then we started the maneuvers, taking into account all the technical details for the safe docking of the ship at the port”, says Mayito. Besides guiding the cruise ship, Mayito served as the liaison between the captain and the Cuban port authorities for all the operations that took place onboard the ship, including the disembarkation of the passengers and their transfer to the airport.
During the 20 hours he remained on the ship, where the passengers who did not have any symptoms of illness were normally associated with each other. The pilot witnessed the hygienic measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Every half hour, a crew member spent time disinfecting all handrails and surfaces. I think the shipping company also took every precaution so that I wouldn’t catch it,” he says.
Alean is an only child, living with his mother and grandparents. Only to them did he talk about the mission. He remembers how, at first, he did not know how to tell them: “When I told them, there was a moment of silence, I saw them uncomfortable, but then they gave me a lot of support.”
On the other hand, Denis is already a family man and he says that in this mission his wife was a very strong supporter from the beginning. Although a little restless, he gave her his support instantly and told her that “everything would be fine, that I would comply with the measures that had been explained to me. Now she talks to our little girl and tells her why daddy is not here.
Mayito, for his part, did not say anything to his family in order to not alarm them, until it was inevitable to tell them. He remembers that “his first reaction was one of fright, but I told them that I was willing and determined, and they had to trust that my decision was the right one”.
Solidarity versus risk
Given the logical fear that each of these three Cubans may have felt because of the danger of a disease that today takes thousands of lives every day all over the planet, and the very risk they could face if something did not go as planned, the images of gratitude of the passengers of the ship MS Braemar who traveled around the world -and their own state of health- are the best reward.
“This operation was a very good thing, even in the midst of the risk it meant, because, hearing how people applauded, shouted from the cruise ship greetings and phrases of thanks to Cuba, gave us encouragement and strength to carry it out.
Even though many outside our country have criticized it, everything we did was good, because we showed, once again, on what side our duty lies, the solidarity we learned from Fidel. Saving lives should be a gesture that always accompanies Cubans,” Alean said.
Something similar happened to Denis, who felt encouraged by the responsibility he was assigned, because “in the face of an operation like this you have to get away from fear and use all your strength because you can’t look bad.
But without a doubt, the one who was exposed to the greatest risk was Mayito. He felt so protected that, when asked, all that stands out is the satisfaction: “I witnessed a lot of joy, happiness, gratitude.”
“My skin stood up when I saw them without knowing how to thank, through me, the Cuban government, for what we were doing for them. The poster and the flag you see on the deck of the ship were part of a tribute to me in recognition of Cuba’s great help. But, of course, there were no hugs.
Three messages to Cuba
For these three Cuban “superheroes” who faced the danger in order to save more than a thousand lives -among passengers and crew members-, the priority is to prevent contagion among the Cuban population. That is why, even in the midst of their rest, they sent three messages to all of Cuba:
MESSAGE 1: “To the population and the families I recommend great prudence, serenity, trust…; that they leave their homes only what is necessary, that they avoid crowds, that hand washing be a practice for now and forever, because it prevents other diseases. In the event of any symptom, they go quickly to their family doctor, so that nobody lets their guard down. Many people think that this is just another disease, just another cold, but it is not. The numbers of infected countries, the deaths… everything is alarming” (Denis Efrén, engineer).
MESSAGE 2: “I recommend that you comply with the measures that have been established, that you trust the indications and decisions that the country’s leadership has taken, that you participate in the active investigation that is currently being carried out, that you isolate yourself when you feel suspicious and go to the doctor, that you think about your family, about the people who may be infected”. (Alean, boss)
MESSAGE 3: “Please take all possible measures and even those that seem to be too much. I’ll give you my own example inside the cruise: sometimes I felt immobilized because my nose was itching or I wanted to scratch my eye, but I knew I shouldn’t touch them. I was in a very risky situation and I assumed that I had to protect myself, that no one had to look after my health but me, and that any action I took was little. (Mario, practical)