Storm-ravaged cruise ship returns to NJ

Four passengers recount the nightmare cruise through a storm in the Caribbean.

- A cruise ship that was slammed by a strong storm in the Atlantic while en route from New Jersey to Port Canaveral has returned home. Royal Caribbean's "Anthem of the Seas" arrived in Bayonne, New Jersey, Wednesday night.

The ship was hit hard when it was off the coast of the Carolinas Sunday night into Monday. Wind gusts hit 75 mph and waves reached over 30 feet. The "Anthem of the Seas" left New Jersey Saturday before getting caught in category 2 hurricane-force winds.

A team of inspectors from the Coast Guard was set to board the ship to investigate.

"Once the vessel's docked in New Jersey, the Coast Guard team will inspect the vessel to verify the extent of damages and ensure repairs are satisfactorily completed before the ship will be allowed to depart on its next voyage," the Coast Guard said in a statement.

"The Coast Guard will participate in an investigation that will help determine if there are any contributing causal factors or lessons learned from this event that could help prevent injuries or damage in the future, as occurs with any commercial vessel operating in U.S. waters under similar circumstances.

Sen. Bill Nelson has called for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the voyage.

"The thing about this storm was that it was forecast for days. So why in the world would a cruise ship with thousands of passengers go sailing right into it?" Nelson said Monday on the Senate floor, according to a news release from his office.

The National Weather Service's Ocean Prediction Center had issued an alert for a strong storm four days in advance, Susan Buchanan with the weather service said. The first warning was issued Saturday for possible hurricane-force winds in the area the ship was scheduled to sail through.

Several passengers aboard the ship have recounted the harrowing ordeal.

Leanne Moskovitz, a pediatric dental assistant from Manalapan, NJ, told Good Day New York on Tuesday that it was terrifying.

"I have video of our room literally sideways. We saw 50 feet waves and 150 mile an hour winds. It was out of my worst nightmare/horror movie," said Moskovitz. "I was saying my last wishes. We were going over. We were sideways."

Another passenger on the ship says he saw water flowing down staircases and people trapped in an elevator — but he'd go on another cruise in a heartbeat.

Jacob Ibrag of Queens, New York, said via Skype Monday that he felt waves rocking the ship Anthem of the Seas on Sunday afternoon as he grabbed food on a top deck. He shot some video, then went to his cabin — but he first stopped to help some passengers climb out of an elevator that had stopped between floors.

He says he stayed in his cabin until noon Monday, at one point filling his backpack with essentials in case of an evacuation. He says he's relieved the ship is returning to its New Jersey home port.

Monday morning Royal Caribbean International released the following statement: "On Sunday, February 7, while sailing to Port Canaveral, Florida, Anthem of the Seas experience extreme wind and sea conditions, with wind speeds higher than what was forecasted.  In an abundance of caution, the Captain asked all guests to stay in their stareroom until the weather improved.  At this time there have not been any serious injuries reported.  The ship has sustained some damage to the public areas and guest starerooms, which in no way affect the sea-worthiness of the ship."

The United States Coast Guard did not receive any distress calls from the ship overnight.  The USCG was aware of rough seas in the area and that they would reach out to the ship to check if everything is okay, but they do not appear overly concerned with the situation given no calls to them were made.  

One passenger says she was "shaking all over" and suffering panic attacks during the experience.

Shara Strand of New York City says she's been on 20 cruises but never experienced that kind of weather. She said via Facebook that she "thought we were done for," describing 30-foot waves rocking the ship.

Gabriella Lairson, 16, says she and her father, Sam, could feel the ship Anthem of the Seas begin to sway by 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The captain directed passengers to their cabins. There, the Lairsons heard glasses shatter in the bathroom, and they put their belongings in drawers and closets to prevent them from flying across the room. They ventured to the balcony, where Sam Lairson shot video of wave after wave rising below.

"The winds were so strong that I thought the phone would blow from my hands," Sam Lairson, of Ocean City, New Jersey, said in an email. "After that we had to keep the doors to the balconies sealed."

Gabriella Lairson said that by early Monday morning, people were out and about on the ship, checking out the minor damage in some public areas.

Lairson praised the crew and captain. "They did everything they could to make us feel comfortable," she wrote to The AP on Facebook. She said she and her father were a little disappointed the ship was turning around, but she called it "the best thing for the safety of everyone."

Fellow passenger Jacob Ibrag agreed. "I can't wait to get home and kiss the ground," said Ibrag, who saw water flowing down stairs and helped some people who were stuck in an elevator Sunday as he made his way to his cabin per the captain's orders. The 25-year-old from Queens, New York, then stayed in his cabin until noon Monday, at one point filling his backpack with essentials in case of an evacuation.

Robert Huschka, the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, was onboard and started tweeting when the inclement weather hit. He told USA Today that the ordeal was "truly terrifying." He described the cruise director nervously giving updates, and he later posted photos of shattered glass panels on a pool deck.

But Huschka was among passengers who found a silver lining in the storm. On Monday, he posted: "The good news? They never lost the Super Bowl signal. Perfect TV picture throughout storm!"

Royal Caribbean gave guests free Internet access and a complimentary cocktail hour, spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said in an email. "Feeling better after the happy hour they just put on for the guests," Sam Lairson joked.

And despite her own worries, Strand said her daughter, 8-month-old Alexa, slept through the entire episode.

With the Associated Press

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