Escape from Wuhan: IUP Alumni Daniel Wethli’s Story of Going from Fulbright Student to Quarantined Evacuee

by Daniel Wethli

My name is Daniel Wethli; I never expected to be in a crisis as a Fulbright student. None the less, I am writing this to recount how COVID-19 (the Corona Virus) impacted me while in Wuhan. This includes my perspective of evacuating on one of the last flights to the United States from Wuhan and being quarantined for fourteen days under the first federal order in more than fifty years. Despite its difficulty, this experience has made me more aware of the innate goodness in human beings and develop deeper care for Wuhan and its people.

Daniel Flight
News Scroll of Daniel’s Flight Deplaning at March Airforce Base

I received a Fulbright Award for ten months study at the historical and cultural sites of the 1911 Revolution in Wuhan, China after graduating from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I also received the language enhancement award funded through the Fulbright program that allowed me to study Chinese for four additional months in Harbin before commencing my academic study.

Before we get to my own experience, you should first understand that Wuhan is a beautiful city with eleven million people and much to explore. It is often compared to my hometown of Pittsburgh because it is the historical center of China’s industrialization. There are many beautiful Buddhist Temples and famous landmarks. I spent the better part of my time there exploring it with my family and girlfriend. I had a chance to experience its many fantastic parks including East Lake with its beautiful forests and vast landscapes. I also visited one of Wuhan’s major tourist attractions, Yellow Crane Tower, which is a significant and ancient symbol overlooking the city from across the Yangzi river. It stands as a testament to the resiliency of the people of Wuhan as the tower has been there since 223 A.D., rebuilt twelve times each after its destruction by fire and warfare.

Yellow Crane Tower
Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan

The citizens of Wuhan also treated me kindly. In my short time there, I frequented a local noodle place across from my dorm because they have some of the best Hot Dry noodles in Wuhan. Each time I would enter the small shop they always remembered me and would cheerfully ask me if I wanted my regular order. This patient, friendly and open attitude at the shop is what I found most Wuhan locals embody.

The first rumblings about COVID-19 to reach me came on December 31st when a fellow Fulbrighter warned me about the “SARS-like virus” in Wuhan. However, I did not think about this warning again until I learned my girlfriend was checked for virus symptoms at JFK airport in New York after returning from visiting me on January 19th. I realize now that this second rumble was only four days before the entire city of Wuhan would be quarantined.

Tuesday, January 22nd was when things began to devolve in Wuhan. Western media was reporting that the situation in Wuhan was getting very serious. Coupled with this, everyone was now required to wear masks in public and the general attitude of people in Wuhan shifted from friendly to panicked. On this day, I went to the 1911 Revolution museum to collect data for my research and security there surprised with the demand to take my temperature before I entered. It got stranger when walking into the museum, a beautiful building that is usually bustling when I realized I was only one of approximately ten visitors at the site.

After the museum, I stopped at the pharmacy to buy a higher quality mask. I began to worry about people next to me coughing on the subway. By the end of the day, the monitors at my dorm started enforcing strict rules about leaving the building. I began to worry they would start locking me in the dorm.

By Wednesday, the news broke that the entire city of eleven million would be under total quarantine and all public transportation would be closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Wuhan under quarantine was surreal. Imagine a city busier than New York but completely empty. I lived on a normally energetic and bustling city street that took up to five minutes just to cross. Now, there were no cars and no people. You could hear the wind. The eerie silence was so strange. It looked like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie.

Daniel Empty Wuhan
Birdseye View of Wuhan Empty Streets After Quarantine

I went to Walmart to stock up on food. While there, I received a call from the Beijing embassy. I was shocked and nervous as I listened to the diplomat on the phone tell me there was a plan for the Wuhan consulate members to evacuate Wuhan and recommended that I go with them. He gave me the choice to stay, but his voice sounded like someone on a serious mission that was ultimately giving me an order. He referred me to a contact in the consulate who would work with me on the logistics for leaving. I was also put on a WeChat group so I could keep updated on the situation.

Wednesday through Saturday were days that I nervously sat waiting by the phone for instructions on leaving. I slept horribly leading up to leaving. I was so stressed and could not focus. My time in Wuhan was suddenly flipped on its head from being so excited to be living there to being in constant fear that I would not be able to leave.
On Sunday, I was alerted by the consulate that it was time to leave and that we would be flying to Alaska and then an unknown location. My university in China notified me that I needed to show multiple forms of proof in order to be allowed off of the campus. Upon hearing this, I immediately regretted telling the university that I was leaving. I should have known they would be tough about it and this made me worried that, ultimately, I would not be able to leave.

Finally, on January 27th, it was time to depart. I was told I would be picked me within a few short hours. I hurried so fast to leave that I left almost all of my belongings in my room.

That morning, an older woman who was a lead student-life official escorted me to the meeting point with the consulate staff. On the way, she told me that she and the other workers in the dorm liked me so much and will miss me. This was definitely an emotional moment for me and shows the true character of the people of Wuhan – so genuinely nice and caring, even in the most troubling of times. I think about her and hope that all the university staff is safe.

Once I got picked up by the consulate officials, they told me things were really getting crazy. They told me that sections of major roads exiting the city had been completely leveled by the government so that people could not use them to attempt to leave or enter. It was amazing to hear that measures like this were being taken to prevent the spread of the virus. It was then that I realized how unprecedented all of this was. We even joked that someone may make a movie out of our evacuation.

We “consolidated” with other US consulate staff at The Somerset Hotel. Walking into the large meeting room, I was comforted by the sight of the United States Seal on the wall. I met the families of the US consulate members, who treated me graciously and with kindness.

I remember how exhausted all the consulate staff looked as they arrived at the consolidation point. As you can imagine leading up to the evacuation, the Wuhan consulate was enormously busy. When we arrived, the Consul General gave the directives for our evacuation. We would leave Tuesday night between 10:00 pm and 3:00 am. During the briefing, I again felt like I had been placed in the middle of a mission.

Even the hotel wasn’t a completely safe point of refuge as it had hired “fever police” to perform room checks for symptoms of COVID-19. They also would report if anyone they found was not registered at the hotel, with the threat of ejection. Consulate staff warned us to stay away from the door to avoid the fever police.

The following day, we embarked in a caravan of ten government cars and a couple buses en route to the airport. Again, it became real to me that this was a US government operation in which the goal was to evacuate China. At one point when we reached a military blockade, we were waved through because of the special government license plates. The whole time I was so shocked that I was living through something like this. As we drove, I became fearful that I may fail the temperature check. The car was hot, I was nervous and my whole body felt sweaty. We were told that our temperatures would need to be below 99 degrees at the airport to successfully pass the screening. We were recommended to take off our coats so I only wore my T-shirt for the rest of the ride in the car even though the weather was very cold. I took a final look back at Wuhan from the Yangtze River Bridge and could see so much of the city, now so desolate as if a war had taken place.

When we got to the airport, we waited for another 12 hours. Again, my worst fear was that I would fail the temperature checks and may have to stay back under quarantine. After a long process of temperature scanning – thankfully I passed – and two separate security checks, we arrived at the gate. I was one of the first four people on the flight that volunteered as a flight attendant. As soon as I took my first step onto the plane, I realized that this flight would be unlike any other flight that I had taken. In the center of the plane, there were two people dressed in full hazmat suits. They took my temperature with an ear thermometer and then asked me my name to verify that I was supposed to be on the flight. When I pointed towards my name on the manifest, the worker said “NO! Do not touch it.” They were worried that if I had the virus, I could potentially spread it and infect them.

Daniel on Flight
Daniel on the Evacuation Flight – Hazmat Attendants in Background

After a 10-hour flight, we finally arrived in Anchorage, Alaska. We cheered when we arrived. The people were incredible in Alaska. They treated us to a fantastic buffet of huge hot dogs and other American foods that I had not eaten for a long time. There were also tables of blankets and clothes. I felt pride and relief to be back in America.

After a layover, we continued our flight to March Air Force Base in California. It was here where, for the next fourteen days, we became the first quarantine in the United States in more than fifty years. My dad watched us land on CNN and saw us all get out of the plane. Although the medical checks were awful, my fears of quarantine were muted on the first day by the impressive quarantine ‘campus’ we had. It was composed of two former army barracks with a courtyard in front of each building and a parking lot in between. There was a lot of space to do things like run and play sports etc. They served us meals three times a day and everything was paid for. Each morning we had “Town hall meetings.” To help pass the time, we created activities that made things a little easier. I personally participated in boxing – something that I had never done before – and also an art class.

In addition to the activities and meetings we also were able to have two celebrations during our fourteen days in quarantine. First, we had a super bowl party with pizza, wings, chips, and cake and beer. We also celebrated the birthdays of some people in quarantine. On our final night before leaving, we had a farewell party.

In quarantine, we made the best of something that may otherwise be very tough, but we still consistently felt bad about the situation in Wuhan. All of us have connections to the city and throughout China such as fiancé’s, friends, parents, family members, and teachers. We all feel terrible that Wuhan is going through such a devastating time and hope that Wuhan and China can make a quick recovery. Wuhan is a strong city with an amazing culture. It also has an incredible history, including being the home of the 1911 Revolution in China that brought about the end of China’s final imperial dynasty. I realize that the people in Wuhan will retain the same spirit of strength and resiliency as in 1911. My evacuation – and those of my fellow American citizens – out of Wuhan is now over. Learning from it, I ask that all of us do what we can to support the citizens of Wuhan and what they are going through.

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