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Crippled cruise ship returns; passengers happy to be back

By Lateef Mungin and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 3:19 AM EST, Fri February 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carnival CEO going on board ship to apologize to passengers
  • Carnival Cruise Lines says it will take up to five hours for everyone to disembark
  • One passenger says conditions not so bad, others disagree
  • Most say crew members have done great job after the ship was disabled by an engine fire

Erin Burnett is live from Mobile, Alabama, throughout the night as passengers exit the crippled cruise ship.

(CNN) -- Finally, after days of listing on a disabled Carnival cruise ship without electricity and working toilets, thousands of passengers finished disembarking early Friday morning at the Port of Mobile.

The frustration that many felt was typified by Janie Esparza, one of the first passengers to get back on land.

"It was horrible. Horrible," Esparza told a scrum of reporters. "The bathroom facilities were horrible and we could not flush toilets. No electricity and our rooms were in total darkness. Honestly, think that this ship should have ever sailed out."

The Carnival Triumph, became a major media story, when it caught fire off the coast of Mexico. The blaze left the vessel listing to the side, drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents and the more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board in limbo. It took five days for the ship to dock at the Alabama Cruise Terminal, three days after it was due.

Family members cheered as the ship pulled in and in the crowd also was Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill. The CEO had his own message for the weary passengers: Sorry.

"We pride ourselves in providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case," he said.

The beleaguered CEO went on the ship as passengers departed and delivered another apology.

But for some, like passenger Norma Reyes, it was too little too late.

"The hallways were toxic," said Reyes, who said she would never go on a Carnival cruise again. "Full of urine. It was horrible. If that ship caught on fire and they had not contained it where would we be? Floating in the ocean or dead."

Others were more forgiving.

"They did a good job of managing expectations," said Brett Klausman. "The information that trickled out was probably well thought out to kind of keep people safe and calm."

Despite the ordeal, many passengers had nothing but praise for the crew, saying they had worked long shifts to make sure their guests were as comfortable as possible.

"No power, no toilets, nothing. Nothing. I mean, it was was disgusting, but the staff, they did such an amazing job," said Joseph Alvarez. "And I give them so much props because they were amazing through it all. I mean, they worked their tails off to accommodate everybody's needs."

Five things we've learned about cruising

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Coast Guard members and a Carnival team boarded the ship before it arrived in port to help speed efforts to get passengers off as quickly as possible, he said.

Some families gathered at the Alabama Cruise Terminal, far from where the ship was originally supposed to dock in Galveston, Texas. Marissa Jenks said her family reported they had a hot meal Thursday morning and crew members were trying to clean up the ship as it neared port.

Boredom and stress

At some point during the ordeal urine and feces streamed in the halls and down walls after toilet facilities failed, soaking the mattress of a friend of his who was sleeping in a hallway, said Larry Poret.

Emergency power failures caused section doors to slam shut, panicking some passengers who had no idea what was happening.

"We definitely (were) not adequately informed," Poret said.

Opinion: The dirty secrets below decks

Poret said toilets on the ship worked on and off, but were too inconsistent to trust.

He said waste tipped out of some commodes and sloshed across floors as the ship listed to the side.

"It runs down the walls from one floor to the next. It's running out of somebody's bathroom out into the hallway all the way across," he said.

Long lines for food and frequent delays were constantly aggravating, he said.

"Here we are looking for hope that, hey it's 6 o'clock, it's going to get better," he said. "And 6 o'clock comes and goes and all of a sudden an announcement at 8, 'Hey, we're running behind schedule.' Well, no joke."

The incident aboard the ship scared Poret's daughter and a friend taking the cruise with her, Poret said.

"As soon as you get them calmed down, the electric goes out and doors start slamming shut," he said.

During less stressful times, passengers passed the hours playing cards, walking the deck and going to see what was happening on other areas of the ship, Poret said.

Passengers set up charging stations to help their fellow passengers juice up cell phones and other devices, he said.

Aboard the cruise ship? Share your story with CNN iReport

The final trip home

Carnival promised an army of about 200 employees would take care of its passengers once they cleared customs.

Passengers boarded buses to Galveston, where the cruise originated, or Houston, or went to spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.

Carnival said it had reserved about 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.

Carnival officials had initially planned to tow the ship to a Mexican port, but after Gulf currents pushed it farther north before tugboats could take control, and considering that 900 of the passengers do not have passports, the company decided to take the Carnival Triumph to Mobile instead, where it can be repaired.

Compensation for travelers

The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.

Read related: Cruise safety drill results in 5 deaths

Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of Skift.com, a travel website.

"The passengers on the ship aren't going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home," he said. Travel "insurance really doesn't cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn't interrupted and they aren't incurring extra expenses ... so they can't be compensated that way."

Still, there's no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.

"It's a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise," Clampet said.

Read related: What caused the Costa Cruises ship disaster?

Bad luck before

The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.

It's also not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line's ships.

In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship's passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.

After this ill-fated cruise, the Carnival Triumph won't host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.

Read also: Eight icy getaways

CNN's Sandra Endo, Rich Phillips, Tom Watkins, Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho, Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.

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