BAYONNE, N.J. — At first he thought it was the fish.
Maurice Weizmann, a Montreal businessman on a Royal Caribbean cruise with his wife, started vomiting on the second night of the 10-day voyage after eating dinner and watching a show on the ship Explorer of the Seas. His wife did too.
Soon they learned the reality: They were only two of hundreds of passengers sickened by an as-yet unidentified gastrointestinal illness that shortened their cruise by two days and created a floating sick bay on the high seas.
The Weizmanns and the roughly 3,000 other passengers disembarked Wednesday to a frigid New Jersey wind and a scrum of media greeting them. Passengers described a crew that was overwhelmed at first by the illness but then responded well, handing out food and treating the sickest passengers with an anti-nausea shot that abated many symptoms. "At the beginning, they didn't know what to do, but after that, they took care of us very well," Weizmann said.
Royal Caribbean says that 630 of the 3,071 guests reported symptoms, and that 54 crew members out of 1,166 became sick. By the time passengers disembarked, seven were still sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took samples from patients when the ship docked in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Friday; it is expected to identify the source of the illness within the next few days.
"We called it the cruise from hell," said Jo Guarino of Congress, N.Y., who spent four days in her room sick. Her husband became sick too, as did some of their friends. After lugging their suitcases to their car, the Guarinos recounted going down to the sick bay and seeing people vomiting and looking ill.
The cruise was supposed to visit Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. The cruise stopped only at the U.S. ports — Puerto Rico and St. Thomas — and returned home two days early, which the company called "the most prudent course for the health of our guests and our crew."
Sue Rogustki was expecting to spend her birthday, Jan. 30, on the cruise. Instead, she was back on land, feeling much better after three days of vomiting and diarrhea. She started feeling sick at 2:30 a.m. on the third day; started vomiting a few hours later and became so ill that her husband took her down to the sick bay. She was then quarantined in her room for three days; her husband stayed with her and got sick too. They're both registered nurses, and both had received flu shots long before they embarked on the cruise.
"I had three days of sickness and quarantine, and of course you had to stay in your room, so that you didn't infect others," said Rogustki, of Bloomsburg, Pa. "That's three days that you didn't get to enjoy."
Even for those who weren't sick, the cruise was a strange scene. Guests weren't allowed to get their own food from the buffet; it had to be served to them. And as soon as they got up from a seat, a crew member would be there, scrubbing it down, said Sonia Smith of Glen Ridge, N.J. Smith's husband became sick on the cruise, and while he was quarantined, he ordered room service from a special menu.
Royal Caribbean is offering a 50% refund of the cruise fare and 50% future cruise credit to all guests. Passengers who were quarantined will receive an additional credit of one future day for each day they were confined to their rooms. "In the end, the exceptional disruptions caused by the early wave of illness meant that we were unable to deliver the vacation our guests were expecting," the company said in a statement.
The ill-fated voyage prompted California Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) to propose a cruise ship passenger bill of rights that would require disclosure of any previous incidents. "At times, the cruise industry seems like the Wild West on the high seas. Most trips are fine, but when things go wrong, passengers are often left confused, bewildered and at the mercy of cruise lines for any compensation or reimbursement for the untimely and premature termination of their voyage. And that's just not right," he said in a statement. "Cruise ship passengers have a right to know in advance whether they are booking passage on the 'Love Boat' or on a voyage to despair."
The illness outbreak was the latest mishap to befall a U.S. cruise ship. In 2010, passengers were stranded on the Carnival ship Splendor for four days after a fire; in February 2013, passengers on a Carnival cruise to Mexico were stuck without power after a fire; and in March, more than 100 people fell ill on a Royal Caribbean ship.
On Monday, Royal Caribbean reported a profit of $7 million for the fourth quarter of 2013; a year earlier, the company had a loss of $393 million in the same period. "It has been a challenging year," Richard D. Fain, chairman and chief executive, said in a statement, then expressing optimism about 2014.
Julie Maron, 68, has been on 28 cruises, all without incident. She and her husband, Michael, were excited to try the Explorer of the Seas, with its ice-skating rink, mini-golf course, 15 decks and handful of pools.
But Maron, of Allentown, Pa., started feeling ill a few days into the trip. She headed down to the sick bay, but the line was so long that she decided instead to get off the boat when it docked at Puerto Rico and head straight to a pharmacy. The pharmacist recommended an over-the-counter drug, and Maron spent the next three days sleeping and recovering.
"At one point I think there were 200 people down there" in the sick bay, Maron said. "I couldn't stand for that long." But the experience hasn't turned them off cruises, the couple said. They've already booked one for next year.
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