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Sickened ship wobbles into a port

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Passengers on Holland America's Amsterdam cruise ship debarked at Port Everglades here Thursday morning with more than the usual Caribbean vacation photographs and souvenirs.

Some had fevers and abdominal cramps. They said they would need a vacation to recover from their vacation. Others who managed to avoid a gastrointestinal virus said they had a lot of stories to tell about spending 10 days on a sick ship.

"It was an adventure," said Kerry Fink, 41, who runs a small radio station in New York and was on the cruise with his wife Tammy, 37. "They had signs everywhere reminding us to wash our hands, and all the help was running around with plastic gloves."

An outbreak of the Norwalk virus has hit the Amsterdam with such vengeance that Holland America Line Inc. is pulling the ship out of service for 10 days to try to disinfect it. More than 500 passengers and crew members have fallen ill on the Amsterdam's past four cruises.

The decision to keep the ship in port came too late for Mary Ann McNulty.

"I took Tylenol and stayed in bed," said McNulty, a passenger from Harper Woods, Mich., who said she spent two days in her cabin with diarrhea and cramps. "Had I known, I wouldn't have gone on the cruise."

On the voyage that ended Thursday, 64 passengers and 18 crew members out of 1,896 people aboard contracted the virus, which is spread by person-to-person contact. It clung stubbornly to doorknobs, tabletops and handrails despite aggressive efforts to disinfect the surfaces.

Passengers and crew members came up with creative ways to stave off further spread of the virus. One man said he used his knuckles instead of fingers to push elevator buttons. Another carried a bottle of antibacterial solution in case someone touched him. Some were leery of touching poker chips in the casino and forks in the dining room.

The crew closed the whirlpool to prevent the virus from spreading on the warm, damp deck. Instead of buffet service in the cafeteria, workers served passengers individually to cut down on the handling of platters of food and pitchers of tea and juice. Salt shakers in the dining rooms were removed, and passengers were given individual packets of salt and pepper.

The staff also dispensed with part of the meet-and-greet with the ship's captain and crew that is a longstanding tradition on cruises.

"The cordial custom of hand shaking will be suspended at each Holland America hosted party, and we urge all guests to follow this sanitary practice as well," said a follow-up letter distributed to passengers when the ship was at sea.

"No one was shaking hands," said Gwen Roach, 69, an insurance agent from Pompano Beach. "Everyone was doing elbow-to-elbow."

Some passengers said worrying about catching the virus was enough to make them queasy.

"Whenever you felt a little woozy or tired, you're thinking, "Am I getting sick?' " said Rivka Fischer, 54, of Toronto.

At Port Everglades, even people who had not been on the ship took precautions to avoid the virus. One woman arrived to pick up a friend from the ship wearing a surgical mask. A television reporter interviewed passengers wearing latex gloves. Some cabdrivers carried disinfectant to spray their car seats.

As part of its 10-day cleanup, the company will replace pillows in all staterooms and pens and pencils throughout the ship. It will clean all bed covers, curtains, linens and blankets, and all upholstery and hard surfaces will be sanitized. No permanent changes were announced in the way the ship is cleaned between voyages.

Holland America, which is based in Seattle and owned by the Carnival Corp., based in Miami, has had problems with outbreaks before. In August, the company temporarily pulled another ship, the Ryndam, out of service after passengers became ill with the virus on a July cruise to Alaska. This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of cases of suspected Norwalk virus on Holland America's Statendam as it sailed on an 18-day cruise to Hawaii.

Rose Abello, a spokeswoman for Holland America, said the company properly informed customers about the virus. "We had people in the terminal area to answer questions. And nobody, prior to board, said they didn't want to get on the ship."

Passengers said the cruise line was being disingenuous in suggesting that they had a choice to change their vacation plans.

"They told us about the virus as we entered the building," said Morley McDougal, a retired teacher from Calgary, Alberta, who was on the cruise with his wife, Marion. "Had I known beforehand I don't know if I would have canceled. We come 5,000 miles from here, and we were anxious to go on vacation. They have to give people notice enough to cancel their plans."