BAYONNE, N.J. -- Workers sanitized Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas once passengers disembarked the ship Wednesday in New Jersey, putting to an end of the largest illness outbreaks on a cruise ship in decades.
Kim Waite was among the nearly 700 passengers and crew members who became ill during the 10-day cruise. The voyage was cut short and the ship returned to port, where it was prepared for its next voyage.
Waite, who had just completed a cancer treatment, was especially disappointed to fall ill while treating herself to a Caribbean cruise. The London woman thought she was the only sick one as her husband wheeled her to the infirmary -- until the elevator doors opened to reveal hundreds of people vomiting into bags, buckets or on the floor, whatever was closest.
"I started crying, I couldn't believe it," Waite said. "I was in shock."
Long lines of weary travelers arrived to freezing temperatures in Bayonne, as Waite and other passengers recalled days of misery holed up in their rooms with extreme stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.
"I've never wanted to go home so much in my life," Waite said. "I've never slept so much in my life, and I've got no suntan."
Health investigators suspect norovirus, but lab results are not expected until later this week.
Norovirus is a highly contagious infection that spreads via microscopic particles found in feces and vomit from infected people, CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, explained.
Sometimes mistaken for the stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said its latest count puts the number of those sickened at 630 passengers -- 20.5 percent of passengers -- and 54 crew members. The ship was carrying 3,050 passengers and 1,166 crew members.
CDC staffers had boarded the ship in St. Thomas Sunday, when they decided with Royal Carribean’s medical team to cut the voyage short.If norovirus is to blame, it would be one of the largest norovirus outbreaks on a cruise ship in the last 20 years, the CDC said. A 2006 norovirus outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship also sickened close to 700.
The cruise line said most guests who fell ill were up and about as the ship headed to port. It said seven people were still sick when the ship reached Bayonne, but none had to be hospitalized.
Royal Caribbean is providing all guests a 50 percent refund of their cruise fares and an additional 50 percent future cruise credit. It's also reimbursing airline change fees and accommodations for guests who had to change plans for traveling home.
Stricken guests who were confined to their staterooms are being provided a credit of one future cruise day for each day of confinement.
The company said in a statement the sanitation effort 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, which is a significant help”
Explorer of the Seas is on track to depart at its originally scheduled time Friday afternoon on its next cruise, a nine-night trip with port calls in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman said.