A cruise ship on which hundreds of passengers and crew members got sick in the Caribbean has returned to the New Jersey port that it left last week.
One woman aboard the Explorers of the Sea yelled, "We made it!" as the ship docked Wednesday. Other passengers, with blankets wrapped around them, stood on deck to watch the ship pull in.
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 caused by the outbreak that sickened nearly 700 passengers and crew.
"Then I went out of my room and saw people with gloves and people sick everywhere," he said.
He said he had the symptoms for five days starting Jan. 22, the day after the ship operated by Royal Caribbean cruise line departed Bayonne. "It was awful. You feel like you want to give in," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its latest count puts the number of those sickened at 630 passengers and 54 crew members. The ship was carrying 3,050 passengers.
Health investigators suspect norovirus, but lab results are not expected until later this week.
If norovirus is to blame, it would be one of the largest norovirus outbreaks in last 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.
Norovirus — once known as Norwalk virus — is highly contagious. It can be picked up from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. Sometimes mistaken for the stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.
Pastor Sue Rogutski, of Bloomsburg, Pa., said she got so sick she was quarantined for three days. She said her husband, Leonard, a nurse who only fell ill toward the end of the trip and less severely than her, had to carry her down from their room to the sick bay.
"When we were in the sick bay, people were getting nervous and they started showing up there to try to get help," she said. "Suddenly, there was influx of 150 people. That puts into perspective what this crew was facing — that it was epidemic."
The CDC said it recommended to cruise operator Royal Caribbean that people who still have symptoms be housed in nearby hotels or seen at medical facilities before traveling home.
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.
Explorer of the Seas is on track to depart at its originally scheduled time Friday afternoon on its next cruise, a 9-night trip with port calls in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman said.