The couple decided they should leave China while they could, anticipating the United States would eventually restrict or halt flights coming from the country. But the only flight Zurek could find was for early February, which he thought might be too late. And when he'd try to call the airlines, he couldn't get through and the websites would crash, jammed with traffic.
"Every day my wife would tell me, 'We've got to leave early. This is going to get bad,'" he said. Because Annie Zurek is not an American citizen and instead has a green card, she wasn't able to get a flight arranged by the State Department to return to the U.S., Ken Zurek said, and he didn't want to go home without her.
When they woke up the morning of Jan. 29, Zurek said his wife told him to leave while he could, and she would stay behind. "I said, 'No. We came here together; we'll leave together.'"
"This was the only time I was really scared," Zurek added. "At that point I really realized I could die here."
Zurek called his sister, who was staying at the couple's home, watching their cat, and she was able to get through to the airlines and then called him back with the airline representative also on the phone.
The airline representative told him "'if you can get to the airport in two hours, you have the last two seats,'" Zurek said. "We packed so fast."
At the airport, everyone wore masks, he said. Inside the plane, flight attendants and the pilot also donned masks.
Zurek said he didn't see any screening for fever or symptoms once they arrived at O'Hare. "We walked right out the airport exit."
At that point, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already begun screening passengers at several airports, including O'Hare, but only for travelers from areas closer to the epicenter of the outbreak in China.
Zurek said he and his wife continued to wear masks, including during their Uber ride, until they arrived home, and haven't left their home since their return.