FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Passengers disembarking at Port Everglades Sunday said their 16-day cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines’ Liberty turned from tranquil to terrible when a highly contagious intestinal virus swept through the ship, flooding the infirmary with almost 700 patients and quarantining many in their staterooms.

Shortly after passengers left the ship, an intensive cleaning began, including the use of anti-viral fogging agent sprayed from bow to stern of the 952-foot ship. The scouring will be monitored by health specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The ship had been due to leave Sunday but will now leave Tuesday on a cruise shortened from six to four days, giving the crew more time to disinfect.

The illness, most likely a highly contagious norovirus that causes extreme gastrointestinal distress, sent 534 of 2,804 passengers, or about one in five, to the ship’s infirmary. One hundred forty two members of the 1,186-person crew were treated at the infirmary.

Other passengers leaving the Liberty on Sunday said they had been ill, but stayed away from the infirmary because they didn’t want to be confined to their cabins.

Fourteen passengers and five crew members remained in isolation when the Liberty docked. Their condition could not be determined Sunday.

“It was a horrible cruise. It was the worst cruise. It was N.G., no good,” said Eddie Amico of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Passengers were greeted at dockside by baggage handlers and bus drivers, many of whom wore latex gloves out of fear of catching or spreading the virus.

Cruise traditions were altered because of the virulent outbreak, passengers said.

At the captain’s dinner, the officers did not shake hands with the passengers. At the buffets, passengers were not allowed to serve themselves.

Waiters wore gloves to minimize the disease’s spread. Passengers were repeatedly reminded to wash their hands. Some reported their beds weren’t turned down at night.

At the height of the illness about four days after leaving Rome, hundreds of meals were served to passengers in their rooms. Many of the ill were served only dry toast and bananas instead of the traditional rich cruise food.

Anti-viral agents were repeatedly sprayed all over the ship and passengers said a medicinal spell lingered everywhere. Passengers told of three-dozen people waiting in line for the infirmary to open every morning.

Sick passengers were treated with injections or pills to fight diarrhea and nausea.

Many passengers praised Carnival Cruise Lines for taking steps to contain the illness.

“Their measures were good,” said David Steele, 42, of Fort Lauderdale. “They stopped the spread.”

Steele said he was ill, but others were much worse.

“My partner was much sicker. He couldn’t stand up without fainting,” Steele said.

Brian Swanson, 64, of Hamilton, Ontario, said he was violently ill for six days, confined to his stateroom. He said there was one benefit of being sick and avoiding cruise cuisine: “I lost 13 pounds.”

Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival spokeswoman, said the company believes the virus was brought aboard in Italy.

“We have confirmed that multiple people in Rome were sick with norovirus,” she said. “That’s our best theory at the moment.”

Big ship

The Liberty -one of the world’s largest cruise liners, with 13 passenger decks and space for 2,974 passengers – is part of Carnival’s 22-ship fleet the company markets as the “fun ships.” Tickets for the trip from Rome to Port Everglades were priced as low as $1,200.

The ship made its maiden voyage in July 2005 and passed its latest health inspection in March with a score of 94 out of 100. A score of 85 or lower is failing.

Noroviruses like the one that plagued the Liberty are a persistent problem on cruises. From 2002 to April, at least 101 cruises and 10,842 passengers had been hit by the virulent virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus spreads easily and quickly. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping and chills.

The cruise industry has long argued that norovirus outbreaks at sea get unfair attention because a CDC study found only 10 percent of the 232 outbreaks investigated from 1997 to 2000 were on ships or vacation settings. The rest took place in restaurants, nursing homes and schools.

“We would like to think people would keep the type of incident that happened (on the Liberty) in perspective,” Carnival spokeswoman de la Cruz said. “It is more likely to happen on land.”

That message was not lost on Arvin Bielen, 64, of Fort Lauderdale. He’s planning to be back on the Liberty Tuesday for its special four-day trip to Key West, Fla., and Cozumel, Mexico.

“I’ve been on 30 Carnival cruises and this has never happened before,” said Bielen, who did not get sick. “Carnival handled it great. This could have happened anywhere.”

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