Passengers congregate on an upper deck of the disabled Carnival Lines cruise ship Triumph as it is towed to harbor off Mobile Bay, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The ship with more than 4,200 passengers and crew members has been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — This is not at all how it looked in the brochure: Pulled by a tugboat at a maddeningly slow pace, the cruise ship Carnival Triumph finally drew nearer to port Thursday as miserable passengers told stories of overflowing toilets, food shortages, foul odors and dangerously dark passageways.
The ship was expected to arrive about midnight, and officials said it would take passengers — carrying their own luggage, with only one functioning elevator on the ship — up to five hours to disembark.
Once off the ship, most passengers will head on another journey, this time via bus. Carnival said passengers had the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. The company said it had booked 1,500 hotel rooms in the Louisiana city, and passengers staying there would be flown Friday to Houston.
“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.”
On Thursday night, dozens of chartered buses — with markings from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — had gathered in Mobile.
Carnival said it will cover transportation costs.
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.
Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Mobile contributed to this report.