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Bug-ridden cruise ship returns to port — with sick bay overflowing

John Makely / NBC News

Passengers look out from the Explorers of the Sea as it returns to port.

John Makely / NBC News

The Explorer of the Seas heads to port in Bayonne, N.J. on Wednesday.

They made it.

An illness-ridden cruise ship returned home Wednesday, an abbreviated end to a brutal voyage in which 600 passengers and crew were struck down by a fast-moving stomach bug.

The Royal Caribbean liner The Explorer of the Seas pulled into port in Bayonne, N.J., just after 1 p.m. The 10-day cruise was cut short after suspected norovirus left passengers and workers stricken with vomiting and diarrhea.

One woman aboard the ship yelled, "We made it!" as the ship docked. Other passengers, with blankets wrapped around them, stood on deck to watch the ship pull in. 

A Royal Caribbean cruise packed with sick passengers is due back in a N.J. port today. The cruise was cut short after more than 600 passengers and crew members fell ill. Experts believe it could be the Norovirus.

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boarded the ship during its port call in the U.S. Virgin Islands to investigate the illness but tests have not yet confirmed the cause. The cruise line said its doctors reported symptoms were consistent with norovirus.

The ship carrying 3,050 passengers and 1,165 crew members departed Tuesday from Cape Liberty, N.J. and had planned to stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

Some people on the ship recovered after illnesses in the first days of the cruise, but Royal Caribbean Cruise Line officials said Sunday that the disruptions caused by the wave of sickness meant they were “unable to deliver the vacation our guests were expecting,” and consultation with medical experts prompted an early return.

CNBC's Simon Hobbs speaks with Royal Caribbean Cruises Chairman & CEO Richard Fain about how he keeps his business afloat amid controversy.

Cruise officials said they will sanitize the ship again and that guests scheduled for the next trip on Explorer of the Seas could be confident that all measures had been taken to prevent future illness.  No one will be allowed aboard for a period of more than 24 hours as an extra precaution, the cruise line said.

The CDC said it recommended to Royal Caribbean that people who still have symptoms be housed in nearby hotels or seen at medical facilities before traveling home.

The cruise line said it 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. 

The CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Richard Fain told CNBC in a Monday interview that it was “a very unfortunate incident,” adding their people had responded quickly and aggressively to the outbreak.

“We screen our passengers as best we can,” he said.  

Norovirus — once known as Norwalk virus — is highly contagious. It can be picked up from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. Sometimes mistaken for the stomach flu, the virus causes bouts of vomiting and diarrhea for a few days. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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