(MCT) — MOBILE, Ala. — Carnival’s crippled cruise ship Triumph limped into port Thursday night with giddy passengers lining the decks, smiling, waving and singing, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Someone shouted, “It’s good to be home!” But their ordeal wasn’t quite over: With only one working elevator, Carnival officials warned that it could take four or five hours for everyone to disembark, although Customs and Border Patrol had cleared the ship.
Carnival Cruise Lines struggled to cope with a public relations disaster. “We pride ourselves on providing our guests with great vacations,” Carnival Chief Executive Gerry Cahill said at an impromptu dockside mews conference. “Clearly we failed.”
He said he would go aboard and apologize to the passengers, and praised the crew for working “tirelessly.”
Passengers will receive a full refund, cruise credit and $500, the company announced.
The Triumph docked about 9:20 p.m., and the first few passengers walked down the gangway and into the parking lot about an hour later. They were greeted with cheers from the crowd and mobbed by television cameras.
Kendall Jenkins, 24, of Houston and her friends teared up and kissed the ground.
“Absolutely we kissed the ground when we got off!” she said afterward.
Jenkins, who won the cruise at a Houston Rockets game, said she and her friends had dragged their mattresses into a hallway to sleep. “We wore our life preservers a little longer than was socially acceptable,” she said. “And we camped out by our lifeboat — we had nightmares about ‘Titanic.’”
They also held Bible study outside, she said, where they read Joshua 1:9: “Do not be discouraged, the Lord your God will carry you through this.”
The ordeal began Sunday off the coast of the Yucatan when the Triumph, carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew, lost power after an engine fire. A generator brought aboard days later provided some extra electrical power, so passengers promptly charged cell phones — and contacted relatives with stories and photos of miserable conditions on ship: urine and feces in hallways, spoiled food, long lines for the few working toilets, rooms that were too hot or too cold.
But Thursday night, families and passengers could finally relax. Jon Hair, 39, a minister from Lake Charles, La., reunited with his returning wife and daughter as they crossed the parking lot, kissing his wife, Julie, in front of the cameras. He called it “the best Valentine’s ever.”
Julie Hair, 36, said the hardest part was going to the bathroom in red plastic bags, which they left outside their staterooms.
Their daughter, Julianna, 12, called the trip “very scary.”
“One time I just broke down crying,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Other passengers described a tense shipboard atmosphere that just grew worse.
Janie Esparza of Houston said she had gone on the cruise to celebrate her birthday with a friend, Norma Reyes of San Antonio.
“There were a lot of sick people and the smell was not good,” Esparza said. “It’s just been a really taxing experience for us. Things started to break down a few days ago — people just on edge. There were a lot of angry people on the ship.”
“The hallways were toxic — full of urine,” Reyes said.
One hundred buses were waiting to transport passengers to Galveston, Houston or New Orleans. An ambulance was waiting too. A person on a stretcher was carried out a door at the base of the ship and taken to it, with another passenger walking alongside.
One passenger was taken off the ship Monday for treatment in Mobile after suffering an unspecified medical issue, according to Terry Thornton, Carnival vice president of planning. Another passenger was removed Thursday for medical reasons. A Carnival spokesman said there had been no deaths or serious injuries.
The Triumph’s slow journey back to shore was delayed further Thursday by two problems involving tugboats. Four tugboats were nudging the ship to port, and about 1 p.m. towing equipment on the lead tugboat broke. A fifth tug that officials had kept on standby took its place, but its tow line broke shortly thereafter.
Jimmy Lyons, chief executive of the Alabama State Port Authority, offered a possible, and simple, explanation: “The ship was dead still and you’ve got a 9,000-ton tug pulling on it — it probably just gave.”
Lyons said the tow line was 5 to 6 inches wide, made of wire rope and nylon, while the tow gear was steel welded to the back of the tug.
Officials replaced the line and the ship set off again about 2 p.m. But the 900-foot-long vessel still had many hours to go. Some passengers, aware that news aircraft were hovering overhead, made signs on bedsheets. One group used their bodies to form letters on the deck spelling HELP.
Relatives of passengers gathered at the dock to await the Triumph’s arrival. Many complained that Carnival officials provided little information and had rushed away from briefings to avoid questions.
Among those at the port was Rusty Adkins, 41, of Indianapolis, who had come to pick up his 18-year-old daughter and other relatives stranded on the Triumph. A banner was draped across the front of his van: “Thank God it’s over! We love u Julie, Robin, Brianna, Brooklyn and Julianna!”
He lingered outside the cruise terminal after a briefing Thursday, hoping that someone from Carnival would come talk to families.
“I was glad to hear that they’re willing to try to provide for us while we’re here,” he said, but wished the spokesman had stayed to talk. “We’ve not gotten to speak to him at all. It’s frustrating.”
As tugboats nudged the ship in, Joe Burgess of Carthage, Miss., was on his cell phone waving and looking for his wife and 18-year-old daughter, who told him they were dangling a bed sheet. With all the chaos, they couldn’t see each other.
“Wave or something!” he told them.
During the nightmare voyage, freelance sportswriter Jayme Lamm provided some insight for the sports site Deadspin.com. “Y’all better be enjoying your Valentine’s flowers while we’re defecating in red plastic bags,” Lamm wrote.
Lamm added: “Food hasn’t been a huge issue, but it’s not good. Jelly & bread and zucchini & red onion sandwiches. Some lady was SELLING Immodium.”
The ship’s crew won accolades from some of the passengers.
Tricia Duhom, 32, of Lafayette, La., who drove to the port Thursday to wait for her sister, Kayla Robles, 29, said she had been receiving reassuring texts from her as the Triumph neared land. “She said that the crew had been fantastic, that they were doing the best they can to keep it clean,” Duhom said. “She said they had lobster today for lunch.”
Duhom added that Robles is six months pregnant and was suffering false labor.
Jenkins, too, lauded the crew and said they needed “a huge raise.” After she and her friends joked with a cook about getting some cake, she said, he showed up with some “on a silver platter.”
Esparza said being trapped at sea gave her a new appreciation of life. “We take a lot of things for granted for sure at home,” she said.
Will travelers hold a grudge against the cruise industry? At least one cruise expert said this saga was just a “blip” and that the industry won’t likely be affected.
Industry veteran Ross Klein, who owns cruisejunkie.com, predicted that people would forget.
“The initial reaction is that people are hesitant to take a cruise, but the industry recovers fairly quickly,” he said. “My guess is that within six weeks (Carnival’s) bookings will be back to normal.”