A local couple was glad to spend a calm weekend at home after taking part in the most illness-ridden voyage in more than 20 years.

Tom and Donna Messerschmidt of South Tamaqua, arrived back in West Penn Township late Wednesday after more than a week aboard the Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas, which docked at port in Bayonne, N.J., earlier in the day.

The couple was able to avoid the suspected Norovirus outbreak, which had hit passengers on the cruise, but weren't able to escape an illness, similar to a head cold.

In fact, the Messerschmidts believe the ship already had been exposed to some kind of germ from the previous cruise, meaning that the ship possibly was contaminated before the Messerschmidts and other passengers boarded.

"There were 70 people reported sick as they came in," said Tom Messerschmidt, explaining that the decontamination process delayed boarding by him and other passengers.

"They had a lot of us in some kind of airplane hangar place with no heat in the building. It was 5 degrees outside," he said. "We were told there was sickness when it came in."

As a result, boarding was delayed a few hours.

The exposure to a cold, damp facility resulted in the Messerschmidts coming down with illness, although it wasn't the same as what others apparently suffered.

The sickness

Messerschmidt said he and his wife endured chills, coughing, scratchy throat and symptoms consistent with head colds. He was unable to take part in the opening night welcome ceremony.

In contrast, those with the Norovirus-like malady suffered nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. They were told to stay in their rooms.

Others were given bottles of hand sanitizer.

Messerschmidt is familiar with Norovirus, he said, because he once contracted it on a Princess Line Cruise to Alaska.

This time around, as many as 700 to 1,000 fell ill. Messerschmidt said frustration set in and crew members reacted in small but helpful ways to help calm nerves.

For instance, passengers were given Perrier water and cocktails such as Bloody Marys and Mimosas.

"Some people enjoyed that," he said.

"The workers were phenomenal," Messerschmidt said. "But I'm disappointed in some of the officers."

He said he realizes they were simply following orders from a CEO or upper management.

The Messerschmidts, unavailable to be photographed for this story, said the 10-day cruise left port Jan. 21 and was shortened by two days due to the viral outbreak.

The ship made ports of call in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, but never made scheduled stops in St. Maarten and Haiti.

Lack of compensation

To compensate, Royal Caribbean tried to offer a gesture of good will, but the nature of the offer changed daily.

"It started with them offering $400," he said.

But many felt the offer inadequate.

"I paid $6,500 for two rooms for four people," he said.

Next, Royal Caribbean offered a 50 percent discount plus passengers would get to keep the $400, plus another 50 percent discount on a future cruise in a year.

However, even that offer has been changed. The most recent offer given to the Messerschmidts in writing is for the cruise line to pay a balance of 50 percent of the cost of the affected cruise, with the money credited to the couple's credit card in four weeks. In addition, a voucher for 50 percent off a future cruise is promised to arrive in six to eight weeks.

What Messerschmidt would like to see, however, is industry reform to prevent future passengers from experiencing a similar situation.

"I'm not looking for publicity. I'm looking for changes in the system," he said.

He contacted U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-17, to hopefully open dialogue toward a push for reforms.

Messerschmidt questions some of the practices allowed in the industry.

"You're at their mercy," said Messerschmidt. "You sign a waiver and whatever they decide is what you have to deal with."

Messerschmidt said cruise lines sail under any number of foreign flags.

"They get American money, but don't have to abide by American laws."