As he watched his luggage being loaded onto a plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on March 30, Trenton Thurber felt relieved that he would soon be home in Arizona.
But then Russia locked down its borders in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, halting all traffic to and from the country, including Thurber’s flight on a Russian Aeroflot plane to New York’s JFK International Airport. From there he was due to connect to his home in Tucson.
Now the 26-year-old is one of the dozens of foreign citizens, including a handful of Americans, marooned inside Moscow’s largest, and today mostly empty, airport with few food and lodging options — and so far no support from the US government.
The advice given to Thurber by the US Embassy in Moscow has not exactly inspired confidence that they’ve got a plan for getting him out.
“They said, ‘If you can get to the land border with Finland, that might be OK,’” Thurber told BuzzFeed News by phone on Tuesday.
Even if he were crazy enough to attempt that trip, there is no guarantee that the far-fetched idea could even work. The Russia–Finland border is 700 miles away. The journey would need to be done by car, or by a combination of train and car, or plane and then a car. And Thurber would need to cover all the costs himself. Moreover, he could run into trouble due to Russia’s new lockdown measures in cities across the country, which may soon include a QR-code system where people will be assigned individual codes in order to be able to leave their homes. And even if he managed to get to the border, he would have to deal with similarly stringent measures imposed by Finland.
“There’s no way to get out,” Thurber said.
The US government has been under pressure in recent weeks to assist the thousands of Americans stranded abroad who are trying to get home from as the coronavirus crisis deepens, borders close and air traffic shuts down. On March 19, the State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory that remains in place today, warning all US citizens not to travel internationally. Secretary of State Pompeo said last month in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the US would do everything it can “to get every American home safely” but warned, “it’ll take us some amount of time.” Neither the State Department nor the US Embassy in Moscow responded to requests for comment about the current situation at Sheremetyevo airport.
That situation came as Russia on Wednesday sent a plane full of medical materials to the US to help hospitals in short supply. The delivery, which critics view as a propaganda victory for the Kremlin as it tries to position itself as a leader on the world stage, came after presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Monday and agreed to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus. Russia previously sent medical supplies to Italy but La Stampa newspaper, citing unnamed officials in Rome, reported that 80% of that aid was “useless.”
Making matters worse for Thurber, who suffers from asthma, he has a limited supply of the medication he needs to breathe comfortably. Medical experts have said people with asthma are among those most at risk for contracting the coronavirus. “It’s one of the reasons I’m leaving Russia. The climate is not suitable for my asthma,” Thurber said. “I’ve had minor respiratory problems since I moved [to Russia] but it definitely compounds my concerns. Especially with COVID in mind.”
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that attacks the lungs and has killed more than 40,000 people around the world, including more than 4,000 in the US.
Thurber’s mother, Renee, and twin sister, Madison, are also concerned about his health and have pleaded with friends on Facebook for any help. “Our family’s greatest desire is his speedy return to American soil...for the sake of his health,” Madison told BuzzFeed News over WhatsApp.
Thurber first arrived in Russia in August 2018 as part of a study program and later began working in customer support for a Russian company that does business in the US. Last May he married Tanya, a resident of St. Petersburg, who remains in the northwestern city with her family while awaiting documents allowing her to move to the US with her husband.
Separated from his family, Thurber described feeling alone, frustrated and worried. And he said he was “hemorrhaging money.”
Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship carrier, had offered nothing in the way of assistance to him except for saying he was eligible for a voucher to be redeemed when Russia “reopened” its borders sometime in the future. In a recording he shared with BuzzFeed News of him speaking with an Aeroflot ticket agent, a woman is heard saying in English that the airline has no flights “from Moscow to anywhere” and that he could possibly get a refund for his canceled flight but that it likely wouldn’t reach his account for “two weeks.”
Thurber said he had spent Monday night trying to sleep on a chair near the airport’s check-in counters, where he thought he and his luggage would be safe, and dining on airport fast food. “It’s not terrifying, but it’s not comfortable,” he said of the situation. “I don’t speak Russian perfectly. I can order food but, you know, I’m a little bit of a fish out of water.”
On Tuesday, unsure of what to do with that luggage, feeling exhausted and realizing he may be stuck for an extended period of time, he decided to check into a small hotel located inside the airport, charging the room to his credit card.
Meanwhile, he also sought help from the US Embassy and State Department but found them unable to help or to provide useful updates. Two emails from the State Department that were sent to Thurber and shared with BuzzFeed News show that the US mission to Russia has been “exploring the possibility of chartered flights.” The emails encouraged Thurber to sign up to an email list for updates. But so far the US has been unable to arrange anything of the sort.
Thurber said that calls with staffers at the US Embassy have only added more stress to his situation. “It’s more confusing than helpful when you speak to the US embassy here,” he said. “The lack of a hard ‘don’t do this’ or the fact that the information I’ve gotten from them has all kind of been not true — or at least not fully true — it’s kind of compounding the situation.”
He conceded, however, that the US government is dealing with an unprecedented situation. “I feel like they’re probably doing the best that they can,” he added.
In a video message sent to BuzzFeed News, a masked Thurber looks into the camera while strolling through the empty airport and describes his last exchange with US officials.
“The last we heard from the embassy was to get an international flight to any European capital. That’s the embassy in Moscow. They don’t understand the situation. I don’t think,” he says. “They do now, but at first they definitely didn’t.”
“The airport’s a ghost town,” he adds.
Thurber received some potentially good news on Wednesday afternoon. He told BuzzFeed News that Aeroflot had listed a flight to JFK on Friday. However, there is no guarantee that it will actually take off. "I've got a ticket for it so I'm just going to lay low until Friday," he said.
In a comment provided by email, Aeroflot said: "We have every sympathy for the many passengers currently stranded around the world and trying to return home. All decisions about flights into and out of Russia are now being taken at inter-governmental level. Passengers who held tickets for cancelled flights will be given a full refund or the opportunity to rebook on a future flight. We urge passengers to contact their local embassy in the first instance."
The canceled Aeroflot flight has also put in a bind some 100 Russian citizens who were set to return to Moscow on the return flight. The cancelation left them stranded in New York and sparked outrage directed toward the Russian airline and Putin himself.
An open letter signed by the 100 or so passengers that was published on the website of Russia’s Echo of Moscow radio station addresses Putin and other top leaders directly. “Among the passengers are minor children and senior citizens. Aeroflot refused to provide lodging and meals,” it read. “With this letter, we confirm that all passengers...are in distress, unable to pay for their stay in a foreign country themselves.”
Responding to the outrage, Russia’s embassy in the US wrote on Facebook that a hotline had been set up for people seeking information about getting home and that the passengers would be put up in hotels temporarily.
The embassy urged people to “remain calm” and “not to respond to possible attempts to artificially aggravate the situation, [and not] to direct dissatisfaction toward Aeroflot employees and Russian diplomats.”