updated 2/26/2010 10:16:00 AM ET 2010-02-26T15:16:00

A cruise ship hit by a virus outbreak that sickened hundreds returned Friday with passengers glad to be back and praising the crew for the way they handled the challenge.

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The Celebrity Mercury docked about 1:30 a.m. after an 11-day cruise and passengers began disembarking shortly after dawn.

Celebrity Cruise spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said at the height of the outbreak earlier this week 413 of the more than 2,600 passengers and crew came down with intestinal ailments.

An extra doctor and two nurses came aboard in St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands and sailed on the Mercury back to Charleston.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said tests showed the outbreak was caused by norovirus, which can spread quickly in closed quarters.

There were two outbreaks of norovirus, which causes stomach flu, last winter on the Celebrity Mercury, according to the CDC Web site. In all, the agency investigated 15 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses on cruise ships calling at American ports last year.

"It was kind of nerve wracking because we all thought we were going to get sick and they brought on extra doctors," said Sarah Bennett, 22, of Columbia, S.C., who escaped the virus.

She said the crew did a great job.

"They would not let you touch anything. Even the silverware they handed to you. They did everything," said Bennett. But, she added, "we were ready to get off."

Both Marge and Stewart Ritter of Myrtle Beach were ill for about 24 hours with the virus.

"It was a double whammy," Marge Ritter, 51, said. "At our table of six, three ended up becoming ill. It lasted for about 24 hours, you were weak for a little while and then you actually recovered fairly well."

She has cruised before and said she "absolutely" would take another.

Kenneth Thompson, 71, of Concord, N.C., came down with the virus and had to stay in his room for 24 hours in isolation.

"It's just one of those freak things that happens," said Thompson, who has been on five previous cruises. "The nurse came by with medications — complimentary at that."

The Celebrity Mercury was to be cleaned as was the South Carolina State Ports Authority Passenger terminal before 1,900 more passengers were to board the liner late Friday for another cruise.

The South Carolina cruise industry is growing and the Mercury cruise which left Charleston on Feb. 15 began Charleston's first year-round cruising season. There will be 67 cruise calls in the city this year. In the past, there were only a handful of winter cruises from Charleston.

The South Carolina State Ports Authority is also making plans to open a new passenger terminal.

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