Gene Sloan, Jason Blakeney, Jayne Clark, and Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
MOBILE, Ala. - A Carnival cruise ship disabled for five days in the Gulf of Mexico finally pulled into a dock in Mobile, Ala., on Thursday night, ending a nightmarish ocean odyssey for more than 4,000 people on board.
Passengers could be seen cheering and waving to family and friends waiting on shore. As they disembarked, many expressed relief to be back on land. All passengers had disembarked by early Friday morning.
Kendall Jenkins, 24, from Houston, walked off the ship in a cabin bathrobe and promptly kissed the ground.
"This was my first and my last cruise," Jenkins said.
Despite the deplorable conditions on board, many passengers lauded the ship's crew for their tireless professionalism.
"The crew was always smiling," Jenkins said. "They need a huge raise."
Erwin Ward, of Bay City, Texas, was on Triumph with his wife, Sharon Ward, and both said the crew worked hard to make the best of a bad situation.
"The crew is wonderful," Erwin said. "They did the best they could. They would have made some different decisions if they had it to do over again, but so would most of the quarterbacks that play in the Super Bowl."
Carnival had nearly 200 employees in Mobile helping with the ship's arrival.
A Sunday fire in Triumph's engine room cut power to the ship, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico and turning a fun holiday cruise into a hellish nightmare for scores of passengers and crew. Passengers described terrible conditions on board, with backed up toilets, feces and urine on floors, little food and electrical power. Some passengers slept in tents to escape sweltering temperatures in overheated cabins.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference.
"I know the conditions on board were very difficult,'' Cahill said at the news conference. "I want to apologize to our guests.''
Cahill also apologized later over a ship loudspeaker as passengers were leaving the ship, though some weren't impressed, loudly chanting "bull----."
Passengers exited the 14-story Triumph -- the largest ship ever to dock at the Alabama Cruise Terminal -- by using its one functioning elevator.
Wind, sea currents and slow tugboat operating caused a delay in towing the crippled ship to port, further hampered by a snapped tow line as the ship began entering the approach to port, Carnival Cruise Line Vice President Terry Thornton said.
Television images showed passengers with signs of "Help" and "I love you" hanging from the ship. And as the ship neared port and came within range of cellphone access, passengers sent out pictures of sewage-stained carpets and walls, and garbage-strewn hallways.
Brandi Dorsett, of Sweeney, Texas, said you had to use red bags if you wanted to use the restroom.
"Or if you wanted to redneck it, you could just use the sink," Dorsett added.
Renee Shanar of Houston, who was on board with her husband, said passengers had food, but toilets weren't flushing. She said some people had food poisoning, and older people had fallen and injured themselves.
Shanar said the couple had a windowless cabin, so they had been sleeping outside. She said food had been distributed on the ninth floor, and some of the elderly needed younger people to bring it to them. They were initially only given cold meals, like 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.
"And then people started getting sick from the food," she said.
News of the Triumph's earlier mechanical woes have begun to surface. The ship's midday 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.
The Triumph's woes have clipped Carnival shares (CCL) the past two days. Thursday, the stock closed at $37.35, down 4.3% since Tuesday.
Carnival reserved 1,500 hotel rooms in New Orleans to accommodate customers who wanted 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 will be bused from Mobile.
The 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.
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.
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.
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 canceled cruises, along with discounts for a future cruise.
Sharon Ward said she thought Carnival "went above and beyond" in compensating passengers.
Others shifted the topic of compensation back to the crew.
Cheryl Espe, 50, of Coffeyville, Kansas, said she wasn't sure if the passenger compensation was adequate, but she hoped the crew would get recognition.
"They worked so hard, such long hours, continuously, and always smiled," Espe said. "They deserve so much. They deserve a lot more."
Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir in Tysons; Bart Jansen; The Associated Press; Blakeney reports for the Pensacola News Journal.