Cleaned vessel off on other trip
January 23, 2005

PORT CANAVERAL — All Maureen Wimmer wanted to do was cruise the topaz waters of the Caribbean Sea with her husband, enjoy the food and see the sights.

But what the 64-year-old and at least 260 other cruise ship guests got instead was confinement to quarters after what was believed to be the Norwalk virus swept through the 15-deck Royal Caribbean International Mariner of the Seas.

The South Carolina woman returned to Port Canaveral early Sunday with stories of how her seven-day cruise of the Western Caribbean was punctuated with bouts of vomiting, diarrhea and visits to the ship’s medical staff.

“My second night started out with Norwalk,” recalled Wimmer, accompanied by her husband, Jack, and at least 60 other couples from the Hilton Head, S.C., area.

“I went to the (infirmary), and there were a lot of people already there. Some people ended up on IVs because they were so dehydrated.”

Still, the ship was able to clean up and depart for its next voyage by 5:30 p.m. Sunday. It was unknown how many, if any, customers refused to board after finding out about the sick passengers.

The outbreak was the second aboard a Royal Caribbean ship this month. In the other case, 116 passengers aboard the Port Everglades-based Enchantment of the Seas came down with the virus. This time, officials tracked the disease back to a male passenger who was sick several days before boarding.

“They have signs asking guests to report any illness before they get on the ship,” said Michael Sheehan, spokesman for the international cruise line. “You don’t imagine that anyone would intentionally make people sick . . . These things just happen.”

Reports of the virus raises a clear concern for a cruise industry still rebounding financially from widespread outbreaks of Norwalk in 2001 and 2002. Brevard County’s Port Canaveral is the nation’s second-busiest passenger port.

On Sunday, Centers for Disease Control investigators met the ship as part of a routine check early Sunday as it pulled into the port. The ship was scheduled to leave the port with passengers for another cruise late Sunday.

The 3,400 passengers who arrived back at the port Sunday were cleared to leave the 138,000-ton vessel about 8 a.m. During the week at sea, cruise employees scoured everything with disinfectant, from elevator buttons and poker chips to tables, officials said.

“There’s different cleaning protocols. You want to wipe any surfaces that have been touched by anyone sick. The key is to clean it properly,” Sheehan said. Passengers also were restricted to room service in their cabins.

About 260 people onboard were affected by the flu-like virus, which can last 48 hours. Twenty-three crewmembers came down with symptoms, Sheehan said.

“There will be tests done and those take anywhere from seven to eight days to get results but in our talking with the CDC and some of the passengers, there’s not much doubt that it’s Norwalk,” he said.

Pat Fleischhauer, another passenger, also got ill on the cruise. In the beginning, she enjoyed the cruise, going out to dinner and meeting other shipmates.

On Wednesday, she started feeling light-headed and came down with a lingering bout of diarrhea.

“It just started, and I didn’t know what to think,” said Feischhauer, a retired teacher on her 16th cruise.

“I stayed in my cabin for one night. They were offering some vouchers, but I didn’t report anything.”

Feischhauer, from Sun City, S.C., said the virus wouldn’t stop her from going on another sea-bound trip.

“Oh no, that’s not going to keep me from cruising again,” she said before getting on a waiting bus.

The passengers who reported being sick were not allowed to get off on the ship’s three port calls. The crew also slipped written memos under cabin doors explaining the problem to passengers. Royal Caribbean also offered credits to those suffering from the virus, according to some passengers.

But it made little difference to Wimmer isn’t keen on another cruise right now. She took offense at what she said were attempts by the crew to put the blame the spread of the virus on passengers.

“I feel we should get a refund. I’m angry at the cruise line because I feel like they knew it was there and they made it sound like one of us passengers brought it aboard,” Wimmer said, moments after getting off the ship.

Word of the illness spread on the cruise early on, but ship employees didn’t start cleaning up in places like the dining hall until the third day, she claimed.

“I don’t think they were truthful,” she said. “I don’t want to do this again.”

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