The Carnival cruise ship Triumph, disabled since an engine fire Sunday,… (Dave Martin, Associated…)
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 Protection 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 news 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 said.
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 basketball 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 cellphones — 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.
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."
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.