FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Passengers of Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas expressed relief early Saturday as they returned to Florida after more than 200 people fell ill aboard the five-night cruise.
Royal Caribbean said 220 passengers came down with a gastrointestinal illness during the cruise, which left Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades Monday for Labadee and Jamaica. The company said the illness affected only a small percentage of the more than 5,000 people aboard.
However, some passengers disputed the company's count, saying many more people were sick.
Passengers who departed the ship Saturday described an extremely unpleasant trip at sea. Tracy Flores said her 15-year-old son came down with the stomach virus Wednesday.
"It was just terrifying -- just the amount of people that were coming in at the same time with vomiting and diarrhea and just looked ghastly," Flores said.
Royal Caribbeans' doctors treated the sickened passengers with over-the-counter medications, the company said. Meanwhile, the crew took steps to sanitize the ship to prevent the spread of the illness, the company said.
Several passengers leaving the ship Saturday said the crew worked hard to keep the vessel clean during the outbreak, but others said the illness overwhelmed the Independence of the Seas' small medical staff.
“We went down to the medical facility and waited over an hour for help. They started running out of water and basic supplies,” passenger Marsha Homuska said.
Passenger (@CruiseNiche) shared these photos with us of crews in protective gear sanitizing Independence of the Seas cruise ship. Many tell us people were vomiting in the elevators/halls trying to get to the doctor @WPLGLocal10 pic.twitter.com/zdXDPiiasV— Erica Rakow (@EricaRakow) December 16, 2017
Victoria Nolan of Genesee, New York, was on a family trip when she fell ill. She said six of her 15 relatives aboard also got sick during the trip.
Nolan said she believes that the number of people who were sickened was much more than the 220 reported by Royal Caribbean. She said because of the limited medical staff, many people did not get treatment and merely stayed inside their cabins to recover.
Nolan said Royal Caribbean's decision to have people travel through the ship to reach the medical area exacerbated the outbreak.
She said people were throwing up in the elevators as they tried to get to the doctor. Nolan said she went to the medical area, but turned back after finding out the wait was more than four hours.
"It's not their fault that it happened, but the way they handled it after people started getting sick made it 10 times worse," Nolan said.
On Saturday, Royal Caribbean employees wore gloves as passengers disembarked the Independence of the Sea. The ship is still scheduled to leave Port Everglades next Thursday for another cruise.
The company said the crew would deep-clean the ship after all the passengers left the vessel.
The passengers were thought to have been sickened by norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness that can spread quickly in confined spaces, such as cruise ships and hospitals. The virus spreads via contaminated food and water.