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Cruise returns to Houston-area port early, cites fog, not more than 160 sick passengers

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PASADENA, Texas - A cruise ship carrying more than 160 passengers and crew sick with an apparent stomach virus returned to a Houston-area port early due to a dense fog advisory and not because people were vomiting and had diarrhea, a Princess Cruises spokeswoman said Friday.

But passengers who disembarked after their planned seven-day vacation was cut short, missing their last stop in Belize, questioned that version of events. They said the crew announced on the second day of the cruise that people were sick, apparently with highly contagious norovirus, and that extra precautions were being taken to ensure it didn't spread.

"I was worried I might come down with the illness, but as days went by I didn't, so I felt more comfortable," said Doris Hajewski, 66, of Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

"Really, if you didn't get sick, you didn't notice much, just the extra hand sanitizers and the extra precautions at the buffet," she added, explaining that after the outbreak was announced, crew served at the buffet instead of passengers being allowed to handle the food themselves.

It was on Tuesday, when the crew announced the ship would return a day early due to a sea fog advisory that could close the Pasadena port, that passengers began questioning the validity of the information, Hajewski said.

"People were unhappy with that and the sentiment on the ship became more that it wasn't because of the possible fog," she said.

A Royal Caribbean cruise returned early to New Jersey on Wednesday after nearly 700 people became ill with the same suspected gastrointestinal illness.

But Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson said the situation aboard the Caribbean Princess was not the same.

"If we did not have the potential of the closure of the port because of fog we would not have come in early," Benson said.

The Caribbean Princess departed Jan. 25 for the Caribbean, with more than 4,200 people on board. It returned Thursday night instead of Saturday. Cruise liners are required to report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if more than 2 per cent of the passengers on board the ship become sick, Benson said.

Officials with the CDC boarded the ship early Friday and are overseeing a special sanitation of the vessel before it departs for its next journey on Saturday, she added. Crew will clean all surfaces of the ship — from elevator buttons to railings — with a special liquid disinfectant.

"It's a winter illness ... this is circulating widely in North America," said Benson, who explained there is a lab on board the ship to test for norovirus and crew were able to confirm the illness. "To have people come on board when they are ill is, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence."

As a result, she added, crew members closely monitor all those who report to the infirmary, especially if they complain of gastrointestinal problems.

By and large, Hajewski said that for those who did not become sick the cruise was fairly normal. She said she and her travelling companion were not infected. The pools remained open, the food was good and, at first, the weather was pleasant. Unlike the reports from the Royal Caribbean cruise that people were vomiting in bags, buckets and even on the floor, she said she didn't see anyone get sick.

She said the crew handled the situation professionally and were strict about quarantining ill passengers.

"It's just a disappointment to miss a port," said Hajewski, who was spending a night at a Houston hotel before flying home Saturday.

"When you travel, there are no guarantees that everything will go as planned no matter where you travel, whether it's a cruise, whether it's land travel, you're always taking a risk," she said.

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.

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