MOBILE, Ala. — As tugboats towed a stranded Carnival cruise ship through the Gulf of Mexico and slowly back to shore Wednesday, relatives of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew trapped aboard appeared at this Alabama port, eager for news or a glimpse of the ship.
Mary Poret, 46, of Lufkin, Texas, arrived early, having driven overnight with friend Kim McKerreghan, 40, also of Lufkin. Both hoped to see their daughters, who are trapped on the Carnival Triumph with their fathers and a friend since Sunday.
“We’re not informed; we don’t know the conditions — just somebody tell me something,” Poret said as she stood outside the port’s cruise terminal in a light rain, the skies gray and the waves empty — no ship in sight.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said the cruise ship was still more than 100 miles off shore late Wednesday and not due in Mobile until Thursday afternoon. The ship left Galveston, Texas, for a four-day trip to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula last Thursday with 3,143 guests and 1,086 crew. It became stranded after an engine fire Sunday.
Officials had said the ship could arrive in Mobile as early as Wednesday, but its speed was halved by winds Tuesday night, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm.
He said that once the ship reaches Alabama, Coast Guard and National Transportation and Safety Board officials will begin investigating what caused the fire, although the ship sails out of the Bahamas and so the investigation will be led by the Bahamas Maritime Authority.
Staff at the port’s cruise terminal were readying the glassed-in gangway late Wednesday. Passengers’ relatives will be allowed to wait inside to reunite with them once they clear customs, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said at an afternoon briefing.
“We want to be able to process them through here as quickly as we can,” Jones said, adding that security at the port Thursday is expected to be “very, very tight” with police stationed at a perimeter and directing traffic. He said that Carnival is reimbursing the city’s costs, and that it was not clear how long the ship would stay at the port or whether it will be repaired locally.
Poret said she has taken Carnival cruises before “and they were always top-notch,” so she doesn’t understand why the cruise line wasn’t better prepared to rescue the ship, or provide for passengers stranded on board.
“They sat out these nine hours floating — why?” she said, although she was glad the ship wasn’t towed to Mexico because her daughter didn’t pack a passport.
Carnival officials released statements Wednesday noting they had dispatched a third tugboat from Port Fourchon, La., to assist two others towing the cruise ship and had mobilized about 200 people in Mobile “to support the Carnival Triumph’s arrival and guests’ travel home.”
The cruise company is providing passengers with buses to Galveston and Houston or, if they prefer, hotel rooms in New Orleans overnight with private charter flights to Houston. Passengers also will receive $500, a full refund and cruise credit.
On Wednesday, Carnival canceled a dozen scheduled voyages of the Triumph from Feb. 21 through April 13, in addition to two already canceled, refunding prospective passengers.
Poret said her daughter Rebekah, 12, was already a “seasoned cruiser” before boarding the Triumph, having traveled on half a dozen — but always with her mother and the rest of the family. When Rebekah called her mother from a cellphone Monday, she sounded rattled by conditions on the ship, Poret said.
Rebekah said she and the rest of the group had abandoned their interior cabin, which became overheated when the power went out, and were sleeping in a hallway, urinating in bags, waiting hours for food and facing at night “the darkest dark you can imagine.” It was quite a switch for the petite brunet, an aspiring actress whom her mother described as a “diva princess.”
“She said, ‘Mommy, I’m afraid. I’m scared I won’t see you again,’ ” Poret said.
McKerreghan’s 10-year-old daughter, Allie Taylor, more of a tomboy than Rebekah, also called Monday, begging to come home.
“I told her, ‘Mommy’s going to be there when you get off that boat,’ ” she said as she stood next to the cruise terminal. “Now I’m just waiting, wondering what’s going on on that boat. What is she seeing? It’s got to be so stressful. Are people fighting? What is the smell?”
Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman, said that despite power outages and shortages of food and water, the ship remains safe.
He said Carnival staff are attempting to keep guests occupied with “a variety activities for all guests, including children, that include contests, games, acoustic musical performances, etc.”
McKerreghan owns an art gallery and was able to just take off, but Poret, who teaches at a Texas prison, had to call her boss to say she wouldn’t be at work.
“I may lose my job, but that’s OK; my baby comes first,” she said. “I’m going to be running to my daughter on the pier. I’ve played it over and over again in my head. I’ll carry her home if I have to. I just want her home.”
She wore a hot pink coat and bright purple sweater because “when she steps off the plank, I want her to see me right away.” The pair stocked their white Kia minivan with the girls’ clothes, snacks, water and antibiotics from the family doctor (“The bacteria’s got to be bad,” Poret said).
They can no longer reach the girls or their fathers on their cellphones, which just go to voice mail. Sometimes McKerreghan calls anyway, just to hear Allie’s voice. A CNN crew at the port said they might be able to reach the girls on another phone, which gave them some hope late Wednesday.
McKerreghan said they got hotel rooms in town and plan to return to the port “at the crack of dawn.”
“We’ll be glued to this dock,” she said.
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