Passengers on cruise ship hit by suspected norovirus recall misery

Explorer of the Seas being cleaned by electrically charged droplets and said to be on track to depart on next cruise

The Royal Caribbean cruise ship "Explorer of the Sea" returns to port on Wednesday in Bayonne, New Jersey, after nearly 700 people became sick on board.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Kim Waite, 50, of London was on a Caribbean cruise with her husband, Fred, to celebrate the end of her cancer treatments. She got severely ill, becoming one of nearly 700 people to fall miserably sick, holed up in their cabins with suspected norovirus.

"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 ... and I've got no sun tan." 

The ship returned to its home port in Bayonne, N.J., on Wednesday from a Caribbean trip cut short by what is suspected to be the largest norovirus outbreak on a cruise ship in the past 20 years.

Travelers aboard the Explorer of the Seas, which is operated by Royal Caribbean, 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 the outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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, which according to the CDC is a "very contagious virus" that can be spread by an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces." The virus can lead to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the CDC, and leads to between 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations each year.

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 past 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.

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.

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, adding that he gave high marks to Royal Caribbean for going "above and beyond" in its efforts to help passengers.

Sanitizing the ship

As for the ship, it will be sanitized over the next two days, 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, president of the Miami-based ByoPlanet, which will clean the ship, greeted the vessel at the dock. He told Al Jazeera that Royal Caribbean was "not cutting any corners" as far as sanitation of the ship was concerned. 

His company was set to use sprayers that produce electrically charged droplets to help sanitize the ship in a process the company says allows them to clean a larger area in significantly less time than other methods.

The company touts its product as being able to kill almost all bacteria, mold, mildew and viruses, including norovirus.

O'Shea said that Royal Caribbean was in the process of doing three comprehensive cleanings, including one that will take place Thursday afternoon, targeting every surface on board the ship with the help of about 2,000 crew members in Tyvek suits. 

"I'm extremely confident that this ship will be noro-free and the cleanest vessel in the cruise industry," O'Shea told Al Jazeera. 

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 told The Associated Press.

Royal Caribbean is providing all guests who were affected on this most recent cruise 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.

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter