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Passengers slog home after 'horrible' Gulf cruise

Published: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 7:46 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 7:46 a.m.

MOBILE, Ala. — Passengers finally escaped the disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph and were on the move Friday: some checked into hotels while others hopped on buses or jumped on charter flights home after five numbing days at sea on a cruise liner paralyzed by an engine-room fire.

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Passengers from the disabled Carnival Triumph cruise ship arrive by bus at the Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. The ship had been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The vacation ship carrying some 4,200 people docked late Thursday in Mobile to raucous cheers from passengers weary of 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 along deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship. The ship's horn blasted several times as four tugboats helped it to shore at about 9:15 p.m. CST. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.

"It was horrible, just horrible" said Maria Hernandez, 28, of Angleton, Texas, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about waking up to smoke in her lower-level room Sunday from the engine-room fire and the days of heat and stench that followed. She was on a "girls trip" with friends.

It took about four hours for all passengers to disembark.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said passengers had three options: take a bus straight to Galveston, Texas, to retrieve cars parked at the ship's departure port, take a bus to New Orleans to stay at a hotel before a charter flight home or have family or friends pick them up in Mobile.

Gulliksen said up to 20 charter flights would leave New Orleans later Friday to take guests who stayed in hotels there to their final destinations.

Nearly 2,000 passengers arrived at a New Orleans Hilton in the wee hours, and by dawn many were headed out again to fly to Houston. They then had to get a connecting flight home or chartered bus back to their cars in Galveston.

"It just feels so good to be on land again and to feel like I have options," said Tracey Farmer of Tulsa, Okla. "I'm just ready to see my family. It's been harder on them than us I think because they've been so worried about us. It's been extremely stressful for them."

Buses arrived at the Port of Galveston on Friday morning after an eight-hour drive from Mobile. Port of Galveston police said they expected as many as 800 people by bus.

Some people faced a long drive home once they arrived in Galveston.

"It's going to be a very long day," said Dwayne McAbee, who had a six- to seven-hour drive from Galveston to his home in Fort Worth, Texas.

In Mobile, tugs pulled the ship away from the dock Friday, moving it down a waterway in the direction of a shipyard where city officials said it will be repaired.

Only hours earlier, weary passengers streamed down the gangplank, some in wheelchair.

For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson, of Texas, the worst part was not knowing exactly how long they would be at sea.

"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe to keep her warm during cold nights.

As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced. "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 line of taxis waited for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers. Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"

It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-mile ship channel. At nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.

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.

A team of six investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board was in Mobile to look into what caused the engine room fire, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said Friday.

The NTSB was working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamas Maritime Authority, which will serve as the primary investigative agency. The Bahamian government was taking the lead because the Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and it was in international waters at the time of the fire, Holloway said.

Still, the NTSB could take information from the probe and use it to make recommendations for improving cruise ship safety, he said.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people disembarked.

"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."

Joseph and Cecilia Alvarez of San Antonio said some passengers passed the time by forming a Bible study group.

"It was awesome," he said. "It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back."

The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.

In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, 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."

Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival said it would give an additional $500 in compensation.

"This is my first and last cruise. So if anyone wants my free cruise, look me up," said Kendall Jenkins, 24, of Houston. Bounding off the ship in bathrobes, she and her friend Brittany Ferguson immediately kissed the pavement at the Port of Mobile in Alabama.

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Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans, Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Mobile, Ala., contributed to this report.

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