Image: Celebrity Mercury
Bruce Smith  /  AP
The Celebrity Mercury is pictured after arriving in Charleston, S.C., on Thursdya. The vessel will remain in port for three days for cleaning after a third straight cruise in which passengers came down with an intestinal illness.
updated 3/18/2010 3:16:07 PM ET 2010-03-18T19:16:07

A cruise liner hit by an outbreak of intestinal illness for a third straight trip from South Carolina returned a day early Thursday as operator Celebrity Cruises brought in extra crew to scrub the ship down for three days.

The Celebrity Mercury arrived about 2 a.m. and passengers began disembarking as the sun rose over Charleston.

The cruise company reported 406 of the more than 1,800 passengers got sick after the ship's March 8 departure. Thirteen of 857 crew members also got sick.

Hundreds of passengers got sick with the norovirus on two previous Mercury cruises this year from Charleston. The norovirus can spread quickly in closed quarters with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the cause of the outbreak on the latest cruise has not yet been determined, but passengers reported symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting.

Linda McNeil, 61, of Hendersonville, N.C., got sick during the cruise but was better by the time the ship returned. She and her husband had been concerned before they left.

"Yes, yes we were, but it wasn't going to keep us from going," she said. "This was our first cruise so we were going to go and it didn't discourage us from doing it again."

Davis Lever, 81, and his wife Beth Lawton, 80, of Summerville, S.C., said they weren't anxious about sailing on the Mercury. Neither were ill and both praised the crew.

"They just couldn't have done more. They had clear plastic over all the food at the buffet line. You didn't touch anything, they put stuff on your plate," Lawton said. "At every doorway they had wipes or sprays."

The couple has been on eight cruises and said the trip would not discourage them from going on a ninth.

When the first Mercury cruise returned Feb. 26, the vessel remained in port an extra day for cleaning. This time, the Mercury will remain three days for cleaning before it is scheduled to sail again Sunday.

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Celebrity Cruises spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said the line is bringing 50 additional crew members to Charleston to help clean and a local company will steam the carpets in all staterooms and public areas. Celebrity Cruises is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

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CDC spokesman Ricardo Beato said the sailing could be delayed if government vessel sanitation officials or if the Celebrity Cruises staff feel there hasn't been enough time to decontaminate.

South Carolina health officials have reported twice as many cases of norovirus in the state as normal this winter.

"It's sort of infamous for sticking around," said Dr. J. Michael Kilby, a Medical University of South Carolina professor who said the virus spreads easily in a closed environment like a ship.

"A whole slew of people can be sick in 48 hours because it has a short incubation period," he said. The good news, if there is any, is that most people recover in a day or so.

But Kilby said the virus is tough to get rid of.

"Even the little bit of chlorine you find in the treated water we have in town and some swimming pools doesn't seem enough to get it out of the environment," he said. "It's hard to know whether some passenger comes on board with it already or whether it is some place in the environment there already."

The sailings by the Mercury marked the start of Charleston's first year-round cruising season. There will be 67 cruise calls by various lines in the city this year. In the past, there had been only a handful of winter cruises.

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