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Cruise ship returns to N.J. port after severe storm

BAYONNE, N.J. -- A cruise ship returned early to its New Jersey port Wednesday night after it was battered by a major storm in the Atlantic Ocean.

Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas docked at Bayonne's Cape Liberty around 9 p.m. A team of Coast Guard inspectors will determine the extent of damage.

The ship was carrying 4,500 passengers and 1,600 crew members when it departed Saturday on a seven-day cruise to the Bahamas. But the 1,141-foot vessel sailed into a major winter storm on Sunday.

Powerful winds and waves as high as 30 feet tossed the vessel around. Royal Caribbean says four passengers suffered minor injuries and the ship sustained some damage to its public areas and staterooms.

Passengers will get a full refund and a certificate toward 50 percent off a future cruise.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, called for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the voyage that forced frightened passengers into their cabins overnight Sunday as their belongings flew about, waves rose as high as 30 feet and winds howled outside.

"The thing about this storm was that it was forecast for days. So why in the world would a cruise ship with thousands of passengers go sailing right into it?" Nelson said Monday on the Senate floor, according to a news release from his office.

The National Weather Service's Ocean Prediction Center had issued an alert for a strong storm four days in advance, Susan Buchanan with the weather service said. The first warning was issued Saturday for possible hurricane-force winds in the area the ship was scheduled to sail through.

Passenger George Sycip told CBS News the passengers were ordered to ride out the storm in their staterooms.

"You could hear the waves crashing against the hull, metal twisting and banging all night long. It was scary," Sycip said.

The nearly 200,000-ton liner, which launched last year, is one of the largest vessels of its kind.

Royal Caribbean announced Monday that the ship was turning around and sailing back to its home port in New Jersey.

"I was shaking all over," passenger Shara Strand of New York City wrote to The Associated Press via Facebook on Monday. "Panic attack, things like that.... I've been on over 20 cruises, I've been through a hurricane, it was never like this. Never."

Sixteen-year-old Gabriella Lairson says she and her father, Sam, could feel the ship begin to sway by 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The Lairsons heard glasses shatter in the bathroom and put their belongings in drawers and closets to prevent them from flying across the room. They ventured to the balcony, where Sam Lairson shot video of wave after wave rising below.

"The winds were so strong that I thought the phone would blow from my hands," Sam Lairson, of Ocean City, New Jersey, said in an email. "After that we had to keep the doors to the balconies sealed."

Gabriella Lairson said that by early Monday morning, people were out and about on the ship, checking out the minor damage in some public areas.

The younger Lairson praised the crew and captain. "They did everything they could to make us feel comfortable," she wrote to the AP on Facebook. She said she and her father were a little disappointed the ship was turning around, but she called it "the best thing for the safety of everyone."

Fellow passenger Jacob Ibrag agreed. "I can't wait to get home and kiss the ground," said Ibrag, who saw water flowing down stairs and helped some people who were stuck in an elevator Sunday as he made his way to his cabin The 25-year-old from Queens, New York, then stayed in his cabin until noon Monday, at one point filling his backpack with essentials in case of an evacuation.

Robert Huschka, the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, was onboard and started tweeting when the inclement weather hit. He told USA Today that the ordeal was "truly terrifying." He described the cruise director nervously giving updates, and he later posted photos of shattered glass panels on a pool deck.

But Huschka was among passengers who found a silver lining in the storm. On Monday, he posted: "The good news? They never lost the Super Bowl signal. Perfect TV picture throughout storm!"

Royal Caribbean gave guests free Internet access and a complimentary cocktail hour, spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said in an email. "Feeling better after the happy hour they just put on for the guests," Sam Lairson joked.

And despite her own worries, Strand said her daughter, eight-month-old Alexa, slept through the entire episode.