MOBILE, Ala. – Passengers finally disembarked from the disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph late Thursday after five numbing days at sea on a ship left powerless by an engine-room fire that left them with overflowing toilets and food shortages.
The vacation ship carrying some 4,200 people docked in Mobile, Alabama after a painfully slow approach that took most of the day. Passengers raucously cheered and craved hot showers, food and sleep before boarding buses to their next destination.
It was horrible, just horrible.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore at about 9 at night. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.
Less than four hours later, the last passenger had disembarked.
Some, like 56-year-old Deborah Knight of Houston, had no interest in boarding one of about 100 buses assembled to carry passengers to hotels in New Orleans or Texas. Her husband Seth drove in from Houston and they checked into a downtown Mobile hotel.
"I want a hot shower and a Whataburger," said Knight, who was wearing a bathrobe over her clothes as her bags were unloaded from her husband's pickup truck. She said she was afraid to eat the food on board and had gotten sick while on the ship.
At the Mobile airport, a dozen passengers from the Triumph slept on couches for a few hours before catching flights Friday morning.
Buses arrived in the pre-dawn darkness at a Hilton in New Orleans to reporters and paramedics on the scene with wheelchairs to roll in passengers who were elderly or too fatigued to walk.
Many were tired and didn't want to talk. There were long lines to check into rooms. Some were emotional as they described the deplorable conditions of the ship.
"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 and the days of heat and stench to follow. She was on a "girls trip" with friends.
She said the group hauled mattresses to upper-level decks to escape the heat. As she pulled her luggage into the hotel, a flashlight around her neck, she managed a smile and even a giggle when asked to show her red "poo-poo bag" — distributed by the cruise line for collecting human waste.
This was only part of her journey to get home. Hernandez, like hundreds others, would get to enjoy a brief reprieve at the hotel before flying home later in the day.
"I just can't wait to be home," she said.
It wasn't long after the ship pulled into the Port of Mobile that passengers began streaming down the gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling carry-on luggage. One man gave the thumbs up.
An ambulance pulled up to a gate and pulled away, lights flashing.
Carnival had said it would take up to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off. It took closer to four.
"All guests have now disembarked the Carnival Triumph," Carnival tweeted.
For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, not knowing how long passengers had to endure their time aboard was the worst part.
"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her aboard to weather the cold nights. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back."
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "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 few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal were waving lights at the ship as it carefully made its way alongside. Those about were screaming, whistling and taking pictures.
Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked.
Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers from the cruise ship.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea.
Buses left the terminal over several hours. Up to 100 had been reserved to carry passengers either on a seven-hour ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans.
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. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"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."
Passenger Ferguson said crew members tried to make the situation bearable.
"They did their best to keep our spirits up," she said.
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."
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment.
Earlier Thursday — four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico — the passengers and crew suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just as it was getting close to port.
As the vessel drew within cellphone range Thursday, passengers vented their anger.
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."
She said "there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
Kendall Jenkins of Houston won her first cruise as a contest prize. But she's never planning to set sail on a cruise again after the ill-fated voyage of the Triumph, despite the offer for another free cruise.
"This is my first and last cruise. So if anyone wants my free cruise look me up," said Jenkins, 24.
She and her friend, Brittany Ferguson, bounded off the ship Thursday night clad in bathrobes. They immediately kissed the pavement at the Port of Mobile, having spent their final minutes aboard jumping up and down excitedly.
Reporting by the Associated Press.