What was to be a seven-day cruise from New Jersey to the Bahamas and back came to an early end Wednesday with the massive Anthem of the Seas back in port.
Three days after enduring a wild ride in rough seas fired up by 125-mile-per-hour winds, the battered Royal Caribbean ship and its 6,000 people aboard docked in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Royal Caribbean, facing scrutiny after the ship sailed into a storm in the Atlantic, apologized to passengers in a statement sent shortly before the ship docked, saying "we have to do better."
For roughly 12 hours, passengers of the Anthem of the Seas had hunkered down in their rooms Sunday as the captain of the cruise ship battled rough seas off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
"It was horrendous," passenger Maureen Peters of Southampton, Massachusetts, told CNN after disembarking. "At one point, I thought I wasn't going to see my family again. I held on to the mattress so I wouldn't fall off the bed."
She said it was her first and last cruise. "That boat should have never gone out," she said.
The nightmare included four hours when the 1,100-foot long ship was at a 45-degree angle, according to Justin Scerbo, another passenger who was leaving the ship.
Royal Caribbean said the ship suffered "superficial damage" to some public areas and cabins but has been repaired and will go back out on its scheduled itinerary next week.
The cruise line said the storm the ship encountered was much worse than predicted.
"If we knew that we were going to have those kinds of winds, the winds that we actually experienced with the ship, we would not have sailed into that. No. Absolutely we wouldn't have (left port)," Bill Baumgartner, the senior vice president of global marine operations, told CNN.
Four minor injuries were reported, the cruise line said.
A father on the boat said passengers were informed of the storm early in their journey.
"We were told there was some weather. I don't know if he said a storm or not," Asher Lipman told CNN during a phone interview from the ship Wednesday morning. "The captain was either going to outrun it, get ahead of it, so it wasn't going to be a huge impact on us."
Lipman was on the Anthem of the Seas with his 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte. His wife, a CNN employee, had been in close contact with him during the ordeal.
Their trip was supposed to be a celebration of Charlotte's birthday, but it quickly turned into a terrifying experience Sunday.
Allison Musante and Scerbo were lying face down on the mattress of their bed as the ship listed in the Atlantic Ocean.
"It just wouldn't end," Muscante said of the frightful night.
The ship was leaning so much -- Scerbo estimates 45 degrees -- that water from a faucet hit the wall instead of going down the drain. Glasses were tumbling off the counter.
Trying to stand brought on severe motion sickness. Musante said that for eight to 10 hours it was really scary.
Back in port, the couple said they'll take another cruise in the future -- but not in the near future.
"After a vacation from hell, we're good to just be at home," Scerbo said.
The couple and Lipman now question the decision to continue on the original itinerary despite the storm.
The company decided Monday afternoon to return to port.
"It's a little disappointing. I think a lot of people on the ship share this sentiment that this was a lapse in judgment on either Royal Caribbean's part or the captain's part," he said.
Calls for government inquest
He's not alone. Fewer than 24 hours after the incident, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida called for an National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
"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 from the Senate floor Monday. "I want the (NTSB) to come up with answers very quickly and make an admonition to mariners: When the storm is brewing, you don't go out of port."
As early as Thursday, the National Weather Service's ocean prediction center in Washington forecast winds of 46 to 57 mph and 23- to 31-foot seas on Sunday night in the area where the ship encountered the storm, CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray said.
Nelson's office says it wants the NTSB to take a hard look into why ships such as the Anthem of the Seas are venturing into such extreme weather.
The NTSB, meanwhile, released a statement saying the incident involved a Bahamian-flagged ship in international waters, and "we are actively engaged with our U.S. and international partners to determine what would be the best course of action, in accordance with established international protocols."
The agency acknowledged that it had received Nelson's request that it review the "incident as part of its investigation into the El Faro accident," in which a Florida-based cargo ship traveled into a hurricane and sunk near the Bahamas in October.
"The Anthem of the Seas incident may provide us an additional opportunity to learn best practices that cruise line operators employ for operating in heavy weather," the NTSB said.
Cruise line will change storm avoidance policy
As a result of the incident, Royal Caribbean will be "strengthening its storm avoidance policy."
The cruise line will also hire more support personnel in its Miami office, he said.
He promised a thorough review that will help identify ways of "expecting the unexpected" in future storm decisions.
He added that the captain, who has more than 15 years of experience, is "very concerned" about what happened.
Passengers will receive a refund for their trouble plus a voucher for 50% of what they spent to be used toward a future cruise fare, Royal Caribbean tweeted.