Why the last man standing on the coronavirus cruise ship never gave up
(CNN) — His ship may have been to hell and back, becoming a floating coronavirus-infected prison for passengers quarantined at port in Japan, but when the captain of the Diamond Princess cruise ship became the last person aboard to finally step onto dry land, he looked entirely unruffled by the experience.
If it weren’t for the mask on his face, Gennaro Arma, striding purposefully along the dockside in full uniform with hat under arm, might easily have been stepping down from an uneventful trip shuttling passengers from one vacation destination to another.
But those who know him best say the steadfast calm Arma exhibited throughout the ordeal in which more than 700 people on board the ship tested positive for COVID-19 was typical.
Captain Arma on his return to dry land.
Vincenzo Guardascione/Princess Cruises
It’s why, they say, the experienced Italian sailor is now being hailed as a hero at home and abroad.
“He emerged to be exactly how people have renamed him — ‘Fearless’,” Arma’s wife, Mariana Gargiulo, tells CNN Travel from her home in Sant’Agnello, a beautiful coastal town south of Naples, where the captain is due to return soon.
“He never had any problems, and I never worried because we were constantly in contact.”
The quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess has been widely criticized for intensifying the risk of infection for those stuck aboard. Many passengers were eventually airlifted out, but not before at least five people had contracted fatal infections.
Nevertheless, Arma apparently proved himself a tireless rock for his passengers and crew during their ordeal and he’s been widely praised for helping lift spirits and for setting a noble example of how a captain should deal with adversity.
His support for his crew was on display right to the end when he disembarked on March 2, having overseen the final transfer of all passengers either to hospital or a quarantine facility.
He called them “my gladiators.”
Throughout the quarantine, he also regularly thanked all passengers on board for their patience and perseverance, leaving them notes of encouragement.
Back in Sant’Agnello his friends, family, townsfolk and local authorities are waiting for Arma’s return, preparing to throw him a huge homecoming party. The captain tested negative for the virus and is currently in quarantine in Japan.
His wife says the captain’s calm and control during the emergency made it easier for passengers to endure being confined to their cabins. It also gave his family a sense of peace and reassurance.
“We talked each day, both by phone and video chat,” she says. “I could hear he was calm, that everything was fine, and I could see that he was fine. He never had any problems.
“I could see him on the ship, he was doing well, working. We had the chance to talk a bit about everything, even our family, and not just about the situation on board.”
Arma, according to Gargiulo, is a real sea dog with decades of expertise that led him to travel around the world after he graduated at a prestigious local maritime school.
“He is a man with great sea skills and know-how,” she adds. “His main worry has always been the well-being of his passengers. It was a good test.”
As the wife of a cruise liner captain, Gargiulo has come to share and support her husband’s job. She says she’s “always been very serene” even during the past critical weeks.
“After many years, I’m used by now to the fact that he can be away, and far away, for a long period of time.”
Gargiulo says she doesn’t know what Arma’s next plans will be — whether he’ll take a break or not before heading back to sea. For now, she says she’s just focused on seeing him again.
‘A true diamond’
His employer, Princess Cruises, has already expressed its gratitude for its captain’s efforts.
“Throughout the response efforts on Diamond Princess, Captain Arma was an exceptionally calm, capable, and inspirational leader for everyone on board,” Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said in a statement to CNN.
“From his regular daily shipboard updates to his tireless coordination with public health authorities, Princess shoreside operations, and his on-board team, Captain Arma’s contributions have been hailed worldwide as a case study in outstanding leadership best practices.
“As he said to his self-proclaimed ‘gladiators’ onboard — a diamond is a piece of coal that did really well under pressure, and I believe Captain Arma himself is a true diamond.”
Passengers too have praised Arma’s steady leadership and the comfort he showed them through regular messages, updates and even gifts.
“Thank you to [Captain] Gennaro for his announcements and ability to find humor in an unusual circumstance,” wrote one guest, Au Na Tan, on Twitter.
She added that Arma was “courageous, sympathetic and carried himself with dignity and optimism for what was an unprecedented and unique situation. Through the entire journey, he sought to bring light to our circumstances and strove to reassure us as much as he could,” because it’s true that only “a frightened captain makes a frightened crew.”
Arma’s wife says his warm and friendly approach to guests is one of his many winning traits and part of his character.
‘Symbol of Italy’
“He always takes good care of passengers, he’s always had a particular attention for them,” she says. “Each day at lunchtime, before they’d start to eat, he wishes them all ‘buon appetito’ in Italian.
“And then there was the gesture of handing out flowers and chocolates on St. Valentine’s Day to passengers shut in their cabins,” to make them feel better and let them know they’ve not been abandoned, she says. “It must have been really hard for them.”
Passengers were thankful for the Valentine gifts and food, posting photos online of what Arma’s crew provided them with.
At one point, Arma recited a quote from the Bible to guests on the power of love, taken from one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, to lift spirits and send out a message of faith and resilience.
It’s not just those who endured the drama on board who have praised the captain.
His actions have resonated worldwide, especially in Italy where many people have seen him as embodying Italian endurance and the spirit of sacrifice. They’ve turned to social media to express gratitude and feelings in phrases such as “proud to be Italian. Grazie!”
Another admirer says he should be “a mandatory case history for talkative, braggart and cowardly politicians.”
“There are captains and captains,” reads another post that says Arma’s actions would be worthy of inclusion in writer Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Captains Courageous.”
He’s the “best weapon (‘arma’ in Italian) against all the Schettinos in the world,” said one tweet.
Local Sorrento and Amalfi coast newsrooms have also been flooded with messages from Arma’s new fans.
One of them wrote how the captain’s efforts make him worthy of “the same sea waters roamed by Odysseus, Aeneas, Christopher Columbus” and other great seafarers and mythological heroes.
Matching heroism with humility, Arma’s final message to his crew stressed that it was teamwork that pulled them all through.
“We are all on the final leg of our journey,” he wrote. “Stay strong, look after yourselves. We will finish as we started: together.