A Turkish airliner chartered by Holland America cruise line to evacuate passengers from its Westerdam cruise was abruptly turned around mid-flight Thursday, according to flight data and multiple sources.
A source familiar with the situation told ABC News the last-minute landing was because the Turkish government barred the aircraft from landing in the country over concerns about the novel coronavirus -- setting off an international fiasco.
Holland America confirmed the incident, saying in a statement to ABC News that the chartered flight "was unexpectedly instructed by Turkish officials to turn around midway through its journey," even though passengers on board had been cleared by the Cambodian Ministry of Health with a letter approved by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office in Cambodia, where the ship has been docked.
An 83-year old American woman who disembarked the cruise ship last weekend and flew to Malaysia was confirmed to have the virus that has infected nearly 76,000 people and killed over 2,100, the vast majority in China where it originated. She and her husband have been hospitalized in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to U.S. officials, setting off concerns that others on board the ship may have the virus, formally known as COVID-19.
The ship originated in Hong Kong where there have been 65 cases, sparking fears its passengers could spread the virus. But it had been 19 days since the ship left port there, with the incubation period believed to be up to 14 days.
The Cambodian Ministry of Health announced Wednesday that all 781 Westerdam passengers remaining in the country had tested negative for COVID-19. The remaining passengers disembarked from the ship, while those who had stayed in hotels in the area were permitted to begin leaving Cambodia and fly home.
In its statement, Holland America, which owns the Westerdam, said all its passengers "are travelling with a letter issued by the Cambodian Ministry of Health certifying they tested negative for COVID-19" and are approved by the WHO and CDC.
"Everyone is healthy, and now you just saw a number of buses leave," Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America, said in Phnom Penh Thursday, before the incident. "We expect everybody to be on the way home in the next two days."
Among those trips home, Holland America chartered the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, where passengers would be able to travel onward to their final destination.
While in the skies over Iran, Turkish Airlines Flight 3441 informed air traffic control that it had a "technical issue" and needed to land. An hour and 40 minutes later, it made a previously unscheduled landing at Karachi International Airport at around 9:50 p.m., local time, according to a Pakistani civil aviation official.
Before landing, air traffic control told the pilot, "No assistance is required upon arrival," according to a recording of the exchange.
The emergency landing and rescinded invitation to Istanbul forced officials to scramble to find a new location for the plane to land. Consular officials from foreign countries in Karachi were awoken, according to the source, as they and other officials pressed the Turkish government to change its mind and then searched for a new location for the aircraft to land.
The aircraft took off again at 2:09 a.m., local time, and was heading to Amsterdam, according to flight data and Holland America.
"Holland America Line has four employees as escorts on the plane and all guests are safe and being cared for," the company said in its statement, thanking the Netherlands "for allowing guests on our charter flight safe passage home and end(ing) this very unfortunate situation."
Turkish Airlines and the Turkish embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.
ABC News' Habibullah Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad and Chantha Lach from Phnom Penh.