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Cruise ship arrives home to NJ port after nearly 700 sickened; 'We made it!' passenger yells

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BAYONNE, N.J. - Passengers aboard a cruise ship on which hundreds fell ill recalled days of misery holed up in their rooms as it returned to its home port Wednesday from a Caribbean trip cut short by what is suspected to be among the largest such norovirus outbreaks in the last 20 years.

Travellers aboard the Explorer of the Seas recounted hundreds throwing up, and stricken passengers having food brought to their rooms. Others were served from covered buffets by crew members wearing gloves and masks during an outbreak that sickened nearly 700 passengers and crew on the ship operated by Royal Caribbean.

Kim Waite, 50, of London, England, was on the cruise with her husband, Fred, to celebrate the end of her cancer treatments. She got severely ill, and barely saw her husband the whole trip.

"My husband had to put me in a wheelchair and take me to the infirmary. The door opened on the lift and there were just hundreds of people being sick everywhere," she said. "They were throwing up in buckets and bags — I started crying, I couldn't believe it. I was in shock.

"I've never wanted to go home so much in my life. I've never slept so much in my life, and I've got no sun tan."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its latest count puts the number of those sickened at 630 passengers and 54 crew members. The ship, on a 10-day cruise that had to be cut short, was carrying 3,050 passengers.

Health investigators suspect norovirus, but lab results are not expected until later this week. If norovirus is to blame, it would be one of the largest norovirus outbreaks on a cruise ship in the last 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.

Retiree Bill Rakowicz, 61, from the city of St. Thomas in Ontario, Canada, said he thought he was just seasick when he began suffering from vomiting, pain and diarrhea.

"Then I went out of my room and saw people with gloves and people sick everywhere," he said, adding that he saw a man in a wheelchair vomiting, then falling on the floor and hitting his head.

He said he had the symptoms for five days starting Jan. 22, the day after the ship departed Bayonne. "It was awful. You feel like you want to give in," he said.

Rakowicz gave high marks to Royal Caribbean for going "above and beyond" in its efforts to help passengers. A female travelling companion did not get sick, he said, which he said was not unusual. He said he was aware of a number of cases in which one person in a room got sick and the other didn't.

Pastor Sue Rogutski, of Bloomsburg, Pa., said she got so sick she was quarantined for three days. She said her husband, Leonard, a nurse who only fell ill toward the end of the trip and less severely than her, had to carry her down from their room to the sick bay.

"When we were in the sick bay, people were getting nervous and they started showing up there to try to get help," she said. "Suddenly, there was influx of 150 people. That puts into perspective what this crew was facing — that it was epidemic."

Rogutski said the ship's buffets were all covered and no passengers could touch them. They had to be served by crew members wearing gloves and masks, including entertainers who pitched in. Sick passengers were brought food to their rooms.

Norovirus — once known as Norwalk virus — is highly contagious. It can be picked up from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. Sometimes mistaken for the stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.

The cruise line said most guests who fell ill were up and about as the ship headed to port. It said seven people were still sick when the ship reached port.

The CDC said it recommended to Royal Caribbean that people who still have serious symptoms be linked to medical care, and perhaps given the option of staying in nearby hotels before travelling home.

CDC investigators boarded the ship during its U.S. Virgin Islands port call on Sunday. They said no single food or water source or other origin has been identified.

Royal Caribbean is providing all guests a 50 per cent refund of their cruise fares and an additional 50 per cent future cruise credit. It's also reimbursing airline change fees and accommodations for guests who had to change plans for travelling home.

Stricken guests who were confined to their staterooms are being provided a credit of one future cruise day for each day of confinement.

The ship will be sanitized and no one will be allowed aboard for a period of more than 24 hours as an extra precaution, the cruise line said.

Rick O'Shea from Miami-based ByoPlanet was at the dock to greet the ship. His company was going to use sprayers that produce electrically charged droplets to help sanitize the ship. He said it would take eight to 12 hours to complete the job.

Explorer of the Seas is on track to depart at its originally scheduled time Friday afternoon on its next cruise, a nine-night trip with port calls in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman said.

___

AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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