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My celebration trip on the Carnival Triumph: From joy to misery

By Parisa Safarzadeh, Special to CNN
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri February 15, 2013
"Mike watching the first tugboat setting up to pull us," writes Chase Maclaskey on Instagram. The 4,229 passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Triumph have been stuck on the ship since fire disabled the vessel on Sunday, February 10. Click through to see passengers' photos from on board. "Mike watching the first tugboat setting up to pull us," writes Chase Maclaskey on Instagram. The 4,229 passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Triumph have been stuck on the ship since fire disabled the vessel on Sunday, February 10. Click through to see passengers' photos from on board.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Parisa Safarzadeh and 8 friends took cruise to celebrate college graduation
  • A fire on the ship led to smoky conditions, loss of electricity, sewage odors
  • She says the passengers received little information about the fire
  • Safarzadeh: Crew and passengers were outstanding, showed compassion and concern

Editor's note: Parisa Safarzadeh is a publicist at Zapatero + Bucaram Public Relations in Houston. She recently graduated from the University of Houston and is a first generation Iranian-American.

(CNN) -- Nine of us booked a trip on the Carnival cruise ship Triumph to celebrate our recent college graduation.

I started out in a room of four friends but we were re-located because our room had a leak. So we were separated and my friend and I headed to our newer, more comfortable room...or so we thought.

Around 5:30 Sunday morning, after a fun day in Mexico, we woke up to a PA announcement calling for crew help. As soon as I heard the captain come on, I looked at my friend and said, "Adriana, if the captain is coming on sounding shaken, we better start to worry."

Parisa Safarzadeh
Parisa Safarzadeh

We put on our robes and rushed out, only to smell a bitter, burning odor at the end of the hall. Keep in mind this was on deck 6, so you can imagine how much worse it was on the lower decks that were closest to the engine room.

People were throwing on life jackets and frantically rushing to find crew, friends and loved ones. By now, we had no cell service, only each other.

People on the first and second decks had opened their doors to find their hallways filled with smoke. They told us of crew members running through the halls to address the situation.

Tears, big hugs as passengers reunite with families

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Within an hour, my friends found each other in the halls and ran to the top deck, where we could see black smoke billowing from the smokestack.

It was only 45 minutes to an hour after the first PA announcement that we were informed of a fire.

Six to eight hours later, we learned how bad the fire actually was when we heard that the crew could still not open up the engine room to inspect the damage. Not much information was provided and we were left to put the pieces together.

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Video of smoke on ship

At this point, the majority of the passengers had been forced out of their rooms due to smoke, sewage or lack of light.

Many began camping out in any open-air section of the ship. They used whatever resources were available for bedding, shade and warmth. Sheets, blankets and pillows were seen all throughout the outside areas of the ship.

Many families set up their new homes on any available spaces inside the ship, in hallways or on the floors of the dining rooms and lobbies. The passengers referred to these places as "Tent City." Luckily for me and the friends I traveled with, we were able to camp out with other friends who had a suite with a balcony. Never have I felt so blessed.

By evening on the day the fire began, we were assured that Progreso, Mexico, would be our port of arrival and that we would be there no later than Tuesday.

Of course, our hopes were extremely high. I could sense people were beginning to calm down as they anticipated Tuesday. Little did we know that soon that hope would be gone.

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A couple of days after the fire, as we were getting fresh air, near evening, we were startled again. We were greeted by the sight of a second cruise ship that dropped off supplies and amazingly we were able to pick up a cell phone signal from the other ship. Finally most of us were able to make our first call, only to find out that people off the ship knew more details of the events than any of us on it.

Still we were informed that our arrival in Progreso was on track. Then the electricity went out. People were beginning to panic, but after half an hour, the power came back on.

We were told via the PA system that due to better access to flights home, we were now heading to Mobile, Alabama, and would get there by the earliest on Thursday morning. Yet again our spirits were shattered. Finally my frustrations emerged, and I lost it.

The next day began the worst part of the trip. Anywhere you went on the ship, the rancid stench from sewage was evident. At this point, in order to breathe, our only option was to keep moving to an open space where we could take a deep breath of fresh air.

Passengers were becoming anxious, aggravated, irritable and angry. Lines for food and beverages were getting longer and longer. This made people even more panicked and many began to hoard food on their plates, with nearly half of it not being consumed.

Why did rescue take five days?

Food and water were going quicker than ever and nerves were running high. By this time, seven out of the nine friends in our group had reached their breaking points emotionally, along with many other passengers.

The two tug boats sent to tow the ship began having problems. Their tow lines were breaking, which caused more delay and lower morale.

The mood changed on Thursday when three cruise ships stopped to provide food and provisions. The Coast Guard stayed close as well and dropped off provisions. Two tug boats assisted us.

If it wasn't for the crew on board, all of us would be severely injured, starved or crazy. Crew members always had a smile on their face and a concern in their voice. Honestly, these people deserve more than compensation. They deserve a huge thank you for their enduring support, service and compassion.

This was supposed to be a celebration trip, and I can confidently say there has not been much of a celebration on this ship.

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But people have been so supportive of each other. The camaraderie and compassion between the passengers and crew members has been outstanding.

Strangers lent cell phones, moms held other moms' babies so they could have a break, passengers gave a hand to the elderly to ensure they got up and down the stairs safely and guys were ready and willing to lift wheelchairs of sick children up and down the stairs, as my friend Nick Burge did.

It was the last day on the Carnival Triumph and finally we were offered treats such as hot chocolate and imitation bacon. Of course, the lines were hours long so my friends and I opted not to wait.

Instead we packed, charged our phones and cried as I sat down to write this. I could write on and on about what I have seen, heard and felt, but by Day Five, I honestly have nothing left.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Parisa Safarzadeh.

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