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Swine flu refugee: Trip to Hong Kong turns surreal for Kirker

By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
Cameron Kirker has had far more than 15 minutes of fame.
And most of it happened in Hong Kong.
The Salisbury resident was one of just two Americans quarantined at a children’s camp outside Hong Kong when Chinese authorities discovered a Mexican man at their hotel had swine flu, or the H1N1 virus.
“It was unreal,” Kirker said. He’s still a little tired from his long trip back last weekend. “It was surreal. I still can’t believe it all happened.”
Sitting at the Salisbury Post with his wife, Carol, who did not make the trip to China, Kirker said he was an instant celebrity in Hong Kong. As Americans, he and his fellow traveler, Peter Cannon of Columbia, S.C., were the odd men out, so to speak.
They were constantly on television.
“We were just plain, ordinary guys. And we ended up on TV. …”
“There was no other news. Everything on TV was about swine flu, all the time,” Kirker said. Television crews filmed them when they were first quarantined, filmed them at the camp, filmed them on the bus, when, seven days later, they were released, filmed them at the new hotel, and then followed them around Hong Kong as they wrapped up their trip.
“Everywhere we went, people said, ‘I know you,’ but they were very polite.”
People would clear a pathway for them to walk through wherever they stopped. One film crew said they would drive the two men around town to run errands after their release for free if they would get their exclusive story.
“We said, ‘sure, why not?’ and they filmed us doing everything,” Kirker said.
The Chinese government had been giving them presents throughout, including tickets to the Peak, a popular mountain attraction.
“They filmed us getting on the tram ó they filmed us getting off. They filmed us as we rode by.”
He laughs now, along with his wife, at all the attention.
It makes for a compelling adventure story.
Kirker and Cannon both work for HIS International, a group that provides hospitality in America for foreign guests. It was founded in 1991 when a group of interested Americans learned that some foreign students in America never even get to visit an American home.
There are chapters all over the country. Nearby, there are chapters at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Georgia Tech and the University of South Carolina.
Kirker has been a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America; this is his new ministry.
He and Cannon went to China to meet students and do some sightseeing. They went on tourist visas. They had some friends in Hong Kong and mainland China, including a graduate student who had been here and returned to China.
“We wanted to see what their lives were like back home,” he said. They wanted to at least see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
“I said, while we were still in China, ‘All our earthly plans have changed, but God’s didn’t.’ ”
Kirker has traveled a lot, to 36 or 37 countries. “I started early. My mother was born in Norway. I got the traveling blood from her,” he said, referring to the Vikings.
They arrived at Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong the same day the man from Mexico got sick.
“It was very short. He woke up sick as can be, and the next day, he was better … he could have gone bowling.”
Nevertheless, that man’s infection set off a huge chain reaction. Kirker and Cannon, hearing about the possible quarantine, thought they’d just travel on to the mainland, but when they got to the border, they were busted.
Because the Metropark Hotel had copies of their passports and knew everyone who was staying there, there was a nationwide alert for anyone who had been at the hotel. From that border checkpoint they went to what Kirker calls “flu jail.”
The was the Lady MacLehose Holiday Village in Sai Kung, created by a British woman years ago as a place for children to go to have fun.
“Most of the people in the camp were Chinese,” Kirker said. “They were the hotel staff. Only 10 English speakers were there.”
One, a Canadian, ended up talking to Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal’s Asia bureau reporter, and he mentioned Kirker and Cannon to him. As the only two Americans in the camp, Cheng asked them to write a blog for the Journal, and since the camp had high-speed Internet access, they said sure.
It’s not like they were going anywhere.
Kirker said the scene at the Metropark when they came back from a harbor cruise their first day in Hong Kong was insane.
“It was cordoned off. There were thousands of police there. … Our hotel was on every TV in the world.”
Kirker wonders about the odds ó one guy on one plane in one hotel, out of 6 million people ó that brought them to this point. “He was staying five floors above us.”
At that time, Chinese officials were afraid the virus could be transmitted from environmental surfaces, so the plane, the cab the Mexican man took, the places he stopped, the hotel where he was staying, the lobby he walked through. All were suspected to be contaminated.
Carol Kirker, a nurse, adds, “It can’t be transmitted that way. It has to be personal contact, but they didn’t know that then.”
It just so happens the head of the World Health Organization was the head of the Chinese health ministry previously.
“That hotel chain,” Kirker said, “is the same one where the first SARS case was.” Back then, it was Metro-something else, but the same chain. “It’s sort of understandable then; a lot of people died from SARS. I would have asked what was the worst case scenario, and environmental surfaces is it. I understand.”
Kirker’s friends had set up the harbor cruise, an all-day event, and he got terribly sunburned. “I looked like Gorbachev, with the red spot on my head.” They had a 45-minute business meeting then, and took a cab back to Metropark. But the cab stopped at a different hotel. They got out and asked the concierge why they had been brought there. Metropark was only a block away.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of people around it, thousands of police, crime tape, buses blocking the streets.”
They immediately thought ó terrorism. “That’s the default thought now, isn’t it?”
But they saw no damage.
“We found out the quarantine had taken effect maybe an hour earlier.”
They realized, after some debate, that the ethical thing to do was surrender to the authorities, which they did.
“They told us if you surrender, you stay for seven days.”
We kept asking, “Do you HAVE to stay?” The official kept repeating, “If you surrender, you have to stay seven days.”
So they left, after taking a picture of themselves with the police.
They spent the night at the Marriott, planning to go on to the mainland and do their business there the next day.
They became swine flu fugitives.

First of a two-day series. Coming Monday: Grief, disbelief, anger all part of the ordeal.

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