HOUSTON - A cruise ship disabled for five nightmarish days in the Gulf finally docked with some 4,200 people aboard late Thursday, passengers raucously cheering the end to an ocean odyssey they say was marked by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship Triumph. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.
About an hour after the ship pulled up at 9:15 p.m. Central, a steady stream of passengers began making their way down the glass-enclosed gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling carry-on luggage. One man gave the thumbs up.
An ambulance pulled up to a gate at the bottom of the gang plank and then its lights went on and it pulled away.
For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, not knowing how long passengers had to endure their time aboard was the worst part.
"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her aboard. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back"
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "Happy V-Day" read one of the homemade signs made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
A few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal were waving lights at the ship as it carefully made its way alongside. Those about were screaming, whistling and taking pictures.
Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked.
Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers from the cruise ship.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
It will take up to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off, Carnival has said.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground.
Buses started leaving the raucous terminal. Up to 100 have been reserved to carry passengers either on seven-hour ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Some also can stay in Mobile. From there, passengers will make their way home with Carnival's help.
"I can't imagine being on that ship this morning and then getting on a bus," said Kirk Hill, whose 30-year-old daughter, Kalin Christine Hill, is on the cruise. "If I hit land in Mobile, you'd have a hard time getting me on a bus."
Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
Passenger Ferguson did say crew members did their best to make the situation bearable.
"They did their best to keep our spirits up," she said.
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment, Thornton said.
Earlier Thursday — four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled by an engine-room fire in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico — the more than 4,200 passengers and crew members suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just when it was getting close to port.
Frustrations with the cruise line simmered on and off the ship, as passengers and their relatives questioned why it had taken so long to get back to dry land. The ship left Galveston a week ago.
As the vessel drew within cellphone range, passengers vented their anger.
Renee Shanar, of Houston, was on board with her husband, who she said has heart trouble. They were told they will be among the first to disembark, she said.
"I don't believe them; they've been lying to us from the beginning," Shanar said.
Disgusted by the foul air and heat on the lower decks, many passengers hauled mattresses and bed sheets onto the top deck and slept there, even staying put in a soaking rain. As the ship approached the coast, a slew of Carnival workers removed the bedding and took it downstairs.
"Today they cleaned the ship, they're serving better food, covering up basically, but at least they're making it more bearable," said Kalin Hill, of Houston, who boarded the Triumph as part of a bachelorette party.
In a text message, though, she described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
"The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors," Hill wrote. "Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes."
Shanar said passengers initially were given only cold cuts, such as turkey and vegetable sandwiches. Then another cruise line dropped off hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, but the line for that fare was nearly four hours long, she said.
"There's poop and urine all along the floor," she said. "The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The 14-story ship still must negotiate a tricky, shallow shipping channel, and was expected to be the largest cruise liner to ever dock in Mobile. The channel narrows to 400 feet inside Mobile Bay, and the ship was only 115 feet wide. It was traveling about 5 mph.
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable. Carnival didn't immediately respond to questions the illnesses reported by some passengers.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president for Carnival Cruise Lines, said the ship received an extra generator that allowed hot food to be served.
"This is going to be a long day," Thornton said Thursday. "There is no way we can speed up the process."
Some travel agents said cruise prices and bookings have not been affected by the disabled Carnival ship, but others in the industry say it's too early to tell.
Thelbert Lanier was waiting at the Mobile port for his wife, who texted him early Thursday.
"Room smells like an outhouse. Cold water only, toilets haven't work in 3 1/2 days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there," she said in the text message, which was viewed by The Associated Press. "It's 4:00 am. Can't sleep...it's cold & I'm starting to get sick."
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the company tried to keep families updated and established a toll-free number for friends and relatives. Gulliksen said about 200 Carnival employees were in Mobile waiting to assist passengers upon their arrival.
The ship was about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula when an engine room fire knocked out its primary power source Sunday, crippling its water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift on only backup power.
No one was injured in the fire, but a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution. In addition, the Coast Guard said in a statement Thursday that it evacuated a passenger who reportedly suffered a stroke.
Carnival said the original plan was to tow the ship to Progreso, Mexico, because it was the closest port, but by the time tugboats arrived, the ship had drifted about 90 miles north due to strong currents, putting it nearly equidistant to Mobile. It was also logistically easier for the company, which said costs were not a factor.
Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Gulliksen said the Triumph's recent mechanical woes involved an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2, and the problem was not related to the fire, he said.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
Once docked, the ship will be idle through April.
Passengers to receive refunds, credit for future cruise
Carnival said all of the passengers will receive a full refund for the cruise, along with transportation expenses. They'll also be reimbursed for all purchases aboard the ship, except for gift shop and casino charges. They will also received a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage.
On Wednesday, Carnival officials said all passengers will also get $500 compensation.
"We know it has been a longer journey back than we anticipated at the beginning of the week under very challenging circumstances," Cahill said. "We are very sorry for what our guests have had to endure. Therefore, in addition to the full refund and future cruise credit already offered, we have decided to provide this additional compensation."
Carnival cancels 14 voyages
Carnival Cruise Lines cancelled 12 additional voyages of the cruise ship Triumph on Wednesday.
The cancelled cruises, which include sailings from Feb. 21 through April 13, are in addition to two previously cancelled voyages departing from Galveston on Feb. 11 and Feb. 16.
Guests booked on the cancelled voyages will receive a full refund, reimbursement for non-refundable travel expenses and a 25 percent discount on a future three- or five-day cruise or a 15 percent discount on a six- to-seven day cruise.
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