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'We made it!': Nearly 700 sick as illness-plagued cruise ship returns home

Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Bayonne, NJ (John Makely / NBC News) Dave Panebianco leaves the terminal with his wife Danielle. They both got sick, he ...
Dave Panebianco leaves the Explorer of the Seas cruise ship after a voyage in which he, his wife and nearly 700 other passengers were sickened by fast-moving gut bug.John Makely / NBC News

Beleaguered passengers finally fled a Royal Caribbean cruise ship Wednesday after a 10-day vacation cut short by a nasty gut bug that sickened nearly 700 people.

One woman aboard the Explorer of the Seas yelled, "We made it!" as the ship docked in Bayonne, N.J., two days ahead of schedule. Other passengers stood on deck wrapped in blankets to watch the ship pull in.

Dave and Danielle Panebianco, two firefighters from Farmingville, N.Y., told NBC News they were both sick on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon voyage. 

"This is my first and last cruise," said Dave Panebianco, 45. "You can't pay me and I'm not going again."

One person was removed from the Explorer of the Seas on a stretcher and taken away by ambulance. Others walked under their own power after the vessel arrived. Several passengers recounted a week full of tension and drama, but also professionalism and care from the cruise line crew. 

"Some people were terrible," said Sue Rogutski, 56, of Bloomsburg, Pa., who was sick for 10 hours and quarantined for three days on board the ship. "We really feared there would be some riotous activity but the cruise line handled it so well."

Cruise passenger Sal Panto, the mayor of Easton, Pa., agreed. 

"The ship said we have an issue here, we are going to deal with it, we are going to compensate people and we are going to send them on," he said. "That is the best they can do given the situation. I think if you look at any crisis management course you might take, they did exactly what they should have done."

Still, the ordeal on the 1,020-foot ship — whose relaxing voyage to the U.S. Virgin Islands was thwarted by suspected norovirus — may linger a little longer for people still showing signs of the fast-moving infection, health officials said.

“We have passengers who are still exhibiting active disease,” said Burnadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

People who are still sick may be too ill to travel home — and too contagious to use public transportation like trains and buses, health experts say. Royal Caribbean officials said Wednesday that they’d pay for hotels or make sure that ill passengers get additional medical care.

Explorer of the Seas
The Explorer of the Seas returned early to Bayonne, N.J., after nearly 700 were sickened on board.John Makely / NBC

“Should a guest feel sick enough that they want to go to the hospital, we will arrange for transportation,” Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said in an email. “We will work with the small number of guests that still feel ill to make them as comfortable as possible."

At least 630 of the ship’s 3,071 passengers and at least 54 of the 1,166 crew members came down with diarrhea and vomiting — classic signs of norovirus. Most of the cases occurred early in the cruise, which left New Jersey on Jan. 21, and many passengers had already recovered. It's hard to say that the outbreak was the worst on record because of inconsistencies in record-keeping. But it's a bad one, Burden said. 

“It would be fair to say this is one of the largest numbers in the last 20 years or so,” she said.

One of the closest outbreaks to compare occurred in 2006, when a Carnival Cruise ship, the Carnival Liberty, was hit with an outbreak of norovirus that sickened 679 passengers and crew on a
November trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

CDC officials have not confirmed that norovirus is the culprit on the Explorer of the Seas, though it’s a common cause of illness on cruise ships. Officials said testing was delayed by a treacherous winter snowstorm that closed the agency’s Atlanta headquarters and results aren’t expected until Friday.

But if it is the germ, it’s highly contagious for the one to two days when people are actively sick — and for a few days afterward. The virus actually lingers in people’s stool for two weeks or more, according to the CDC.

That means that anyone who fell ill — and those who were around them — should pay extra attention to washing their hands and other kinds of cleanliness, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, outgoing head of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“The key will be really good hygiene,” she said. “People who have been ill with norovirus shouldn’t be preparing food."

Cleanliness will be the key for the cruise line, too. Officials said they plan another scrub, a so-called “barrier sanitation” program to ensure that any remaining traces of illness are removed from the ship. Norovirus is a notoriously difficult bug to eradicate, health experts say. 

“It will be the third aggressive sanitizing procedure the ship has undertaken since we became aware of the issue, and will additionally provide a window of more than 24 hours where there are no persons aboard the ship,” officials said in a statement.

Explorer of the Seas is set to embark on a nine-day cruise to the eastern Caribbean on Friday.

Royal Caribbean has said it will compensate passengers for their trouble. The Panebiancos said they were offered a 50 percent refund on this cruise and 50 percent discount on another one. 

"That won't happen," Dave Panebianco said. 

But Rogutski, a veteran of several cruises, said she'd go again on a cruise "lickety-split."

"Yes, I'm already signed up. Next year on the Quantum of the Seas for 12 days. When things like this happen you can't blame everybody, you just have to go on."

NBC's Alex Moe contributed reporting from Bayonne, N.J.

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter with NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.