By Gene Sloan and Jayne Clark
Carnival dispatched a third tugboat on Wednesday to tow the crippled Carnival Triumph into Mobile, Ala., and announced the cancellation of sailings on the ship through April 13.
In Mobile, officials were readying the cruise ship terminal for the Triumph's expected Thursday afternoon arrival in an effort to quickly process the 4,000-plus passengers and crew. Medical personnel are to be on hand to triage passengers, although no injuries have been reported as a direct cause of Sunday's engine room fire. The fire cut power to the ship, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico on the fourth day of a five-day cruise from Galveston, Texas.
News of earlier mechanical problems on the Triumph also surfaced. The ship's mid-day departure from Galveston on Jan. 28 was delayed until about 8 p.m. due to propulsion issues. But Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told The Associated Press that the problem with the ship's alternator was repaired and didn't appear to be linked to Sunday's fire. The Triumph is one of the older ships in Carnival's fleet of 24 vessels.
Amid horrific reports of overflowing toilets and a stench so powerful it was making people sick, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill said the cruise line is making passengers aboard the disabled ship as comfortable as possible, but acknowledged conditions on board the ship are "challenging."
Cahill said late Tuesday that the ship has running water and most of its 23 public restrooms and some of the guest cabin bathrooms are working. He downplayed the possibility of an outbreak of disease from unsanitary conditions, saying the ship hasn't seen an abnormal number of people reporting to the infirmary as being ill.
"No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions on board the ship," Cahill said at a news conference in Miami. "We obviously are very, very sorry about what is taking place."
David Olsen, 60, of Beaumont, Texas, drove to Mobile to await the ship."My wife and sister-in-law have been treated like animals for the last four days," he said Wednesday.
"I have not heard from my wife since Monday and do not know if she's OK. I'm tired of the way Carnival is treating her. They were having to poop in trash bags," said Olsen, a recently retired oil company worker.
He said that he heard passengers had to sleep on decks, in lounge chairs. His wife, Esther, told him they were able to stake out chairs early and make sure nobody stole them - chairs are hot items. Some people were sleeping on the ground.
"They had ships going by there. Why couldn't they take some people off (the ship)?" David Olsen asked.
Communication with passengers has been spotty since Monday due to lack of cellphone service, but passenger Ann Barlow texted ABC News that conditions were worsening.
"Elderly and handicap are struggling, the smell is gross," the message read. "Our room is leaking sewage."
Jimmy Mowlam of Warren, Texas, last heard from his son, Rob Mowlam, who got married on board the ship, on Monday evening.
"He said everyone was up on the deck trying to get some air. It looked like a shantytown, but generally, everyone was in good spirits, trying to make the best of a bad situation," Mowlam told USA TODAY. "Of course, that was two days ago."
Carnival has reserved 1,500 hotel rooms in New Orleans to accommodate customers who want to rest overnight Thursday before continuing home. The cruise line also has chartered planes to ferry passengers on Friday. Passengers who prefer to get back to Houston or Galveston on Thursday will be bused from Mobile.
The U.S. Coast Guard, along with a team from the National Transportation Safety Board, has opened an investigation into the cause of the fire. The NTSB said the Bahamas Maritime Agency will lead the investigation because the ship carries a Bahamian flag.
"We have investigators who are mariners as well," said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway, and an expert in finding the cause of fires. "They have investigated other fires on cruise ships."
Although the blaze was contained, Carnival said, it knocked out the power that runs air conditioning, elevators and toilets in passenger areas and kitchen equipment used to prepare hot meals.
The vessel's freshwater system was knocked down until Monday, Carnival said, when toilets in some areas of the ship were working again. Enough power was restored to allow for some hot food at a buffet.
Still, conditions have remained difficult, with passengers relaying stories of long lines for meals and people sleeping on open decks.
After evaluating options on Monday, the cruise line decided to tow the ship back to port, Gulliksen said. Because Carnival ships tend to sail full, there may have been no space to accommodate passengers on other ships, retired cruise line executive Art Sbarsky surmised.
"Given a choice, I'd rather be on a ship the size of Triumph than bobbing around in a (life boat)," Sbarsky said.
Jay Herring, a former senior officer for Carnival Cruise Lines, said one of the biggest concerns crew members will have until the ship docks is the potential for disease outbreak, particularly norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea.
"Housekeeping, others are probably working double shifts to keep the mess clean and wipe down and sanitize all the common areas," said Herring, who worked for Carnival from 2002 to 2004 and spent four months on the Triumph.
It emerged Tuesday that the ship had been listing about 4.5 degrees on Monday, which Carnival attributed to strong winds.
Gulliksen said the list diminished to about 2 degrees Tuesday after tugboats began towing the vessel. The listing poses no safety risk, Carnival said.
The ship was 150 miles from the coast of Mexico when it lost power, and Carnival initially planned to tow it to the Mexican port of Progreso, but strong currents pushed the ship 90 miles north by the time tugs reached the vessel, making a tow to Alabama more logical.
None of the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew on board the Carnival Triumph was injured during the fire, and only one medical issue has since been reported.
On Monday, a passenger in need of dialysis was transferred to the Carnival Legend for transport to Cozumel, Mexico. Arriving Monday afternoon, the Legend also provided meals for passengers on the Triumph - and a chance for some passengers to communicate with home.
But the lack of communication has frustrated families anxious about their loved ones.
"It's stressful," Danny Price of Oklahoma told Tulsa's KJRH-TV of not being able to talk to his wife and other relatives on the vessel. "I'd like to hear from her and know that she's all right and being taken care of."
Travel agent Monte Akers of CruiseOne in Houston said he hasn't heard from a family of six he had booked on the sailing, but he said he was impressed with how Carnival was handling the situation so far.
Within hours of the fire, Carnival announced that passengers on the ship would get full refunds, and it later added a credit for a future cruise.
"Typically when these things happen, cruise lines will give vouchers for only a portion of the cruise," Akers said.
Carnival will offer full refunds to passengers booked on upcoming cancelled cruises, along with discounts for a future cruise.
The company said concerned family members of passengers can call 888-290-5095 or 305-406-5534.
The Carnival Triumph fire is just the latest in a string of serious incidents involving cruise ships. The most serious was the capsizing of the Costa Concordia in January 2012 in Italy that left 32 passengers dead.
Contributing: Bart Jansen; The Associated Press