With the news that public transport — including planes and trains — leaving Wuhan would be “temporarily closed” from Thursday morning, the CNN team on the ground had to scramble to get out of the city.
2:50 a.m. China time Colleagues in Beijing and Atlanta were the first to learn of the news and decided to pull the team out rather than risk them being stuck in Wuhan for an indefinite period.
Doing so wouldn’t prove straightforward, however. There were only three flights to Beijing before 10 a.m., when the shutdown would come into effect, and all were almost full and carried with them the major uncertainty over what would happen if there were delays — would departures be called off if they dragged on beyond cut-off time?
Roads were not mentioned in the announcement about the closures, but there was already reports on social media of police blocking highways, so Atlanta and Beijing decided the team should get a train out.
3:00 a.m. Woken early by colleagues in Beijing, the team rushed to the closest train station, where they found a flurry of other passengers with the same idea. Families unloading their cars and hurrying to get into lines that already stretched outside the doors; it seems they too got the message and wanted to get out.
4:00 a.m. After almost an hour queuing for tickets, the team was able to secure seats on a 7 a.m. high-speed train headed back to Beijing — but from another station across town, one closer to the city center, within a few blocks of the Huanan Seafood Market, the suspected epicenter of the viral outbreak.
Walking out of the first train station, the team was approached by one woman offering to drive people to a city about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Wuhan. She wanted $300 for the journey.
5:00 a.m. Driving through Wuhan en route to Hankou railway station, the team saw groups of people standing at the sides of the road, luggage at their sides, face masks on. It was not immediately clear what they were waiting for, but they were seemingly prepared for a long journey.
Arriving at Wuhan’s central station, the team watched as dozens of passengers busily filed through the security screening. Officials were also using thermal detectors to scan for potential fevers. Just outside the main door, a man who looked to be in his late 60s, sat with a box of unopened face masks. He was selling them for about $1.75 each.
6:00 a.m. Inside Hankou station, the crowds were shoulder to shoulder. It was difficult to distinguish between planned holiday travelers — Lunar New Year being two days away — and fellow last-minute departures. The only people who stood out were the few who had left their faces uncovered. Others took the opposite approach: one woman had covered her face, hands, head and body with a plastic poncho. Some wore hair nets, while others doubled up on face masks.
6.55 a.m. As the final boarding calls were made, passengers rushed from the platform onto the train. One young couple walked up to the door with their son and an elderly man. They told CNN they were sending the child with his grandfather to stay with family out of town. But they didn’t want to unnecessarily risk exposing out of town relatives to the illness so were staying back in Wuhan themselves.
7:00 a.m. As the train departed Wuhan, staff were all wearing masks, only 36 hours after they were reportedly told by management not to, so as to avoid a panic. It was still dark as the train left the city, but as it forged ahead the sun rose amid thick smog and morning mist.