BAYONNE, N.J. (AP) - Passengers aboard a cruise ship on which hundreds fell ill recalled days of misery being holed up in their rooms as the Explorer of the Seas returned to its home port Wednesday after a Caribbean trip cut short by an outbreak of stomach flu.
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 caused by the suspected norovirus outbreak that sickened nearly 700 passengers and crew.
"Then I went out of my room and saw people with gloves and people sick everywhere," he said.
STORY: US Health officials probe illnesses on Caribbean cruise
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.
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 in last 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.
Rakowicz gave high marks to the Royal Caribbean cruise line for going "above and beyond" in its efforts to help passengers. A female traveling 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."
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.
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.
The cruise line said most guests who fell ill were up and about as the ship headed to port.
One woman aboard the Explorers of the Sea yelled, "We made it!" as the ship docked.
The CDC said it recommended to Royal Caribbean that people who still have symptoms be housed in nearby hotels or seen at medical facilities before traveling home. It was not immediately known how many people's trip home did get held up.
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 percent refund of their cruise fares and an additional 50 percent future cruise credit. It's also reimbursing airline change fees and accommodations for guests who had to change plans for traveling home.
Stricken guests who were confined to their staterooms are being provided a credit of one future cruise day for each day of confinement.
After returning to port, 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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