MOBILE, Ala. — The miserable passengers aboard the ill-fated Carnival cruise line were slowly making their long journey home Thursday after crews repaired a broken tow line, another bad break that briefly set the ship adrift off the Alabama coast.
As passengers came within sight of land and a cellphone signal, a clearer picture of the scene aboard the ship began to emerge. They described overflowing toilets, sewage backed up in showers, scarce food, people getting sick and a tent city on what was supposed to be a tanning deck. What began as a four-day voyage in the Gulf of Mexico had turned into a vacation nightmare, not at all the luxury cruise touted in brochures.
The more than 4,000 people who left Galveston, Texas, a week ago were expected to make it to shore Thursday night at the earliest — only to then face an hours-long bus ride or other travel hassles to finally get back home. Frustrations with the cruise line were simmering on and off the ship, as passengers and their relatives questioned why it has taken so long to get back to dry land after an engine-room fire disabled the ship Sunday.
"There's poop and urine all along the floor," Renee Shanar, of Houston, said from her cellphone aboard the ship. "The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The ship was in sight of the Alabama shore Thursday afternoon when the tow line broke, leaving it briefly dead in the water, Coast Guard Petty Officer William Colclough said. It wasn't immediately clear how long the broken line had delayed the trip home.
The 14-story ship still has to negotiate a tricky, shallow shipping channel before it can dock. Before the line broke, the ship was traveling about 5 mph.
Television images from CNN showed passengers with signs of "Help" and "I love you" hanging from their cabin rooms. Others walked around the deck, some waving to the helicopters flying above. People in boats, presumably officials from Carnival, the Coast Guard and Customs, have boarded the ship.
Shanar, who is on the ship with her husband, said the couple had a cabin with no windows, so they have been sleeping outside for days. She said the food has been distributed on the 9th floor, and some of the elderly have needed younger people to bring it to them. They were initially only given cold cuts, like turkey and vegetable sandwiches. Then another cruise line dropped off hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, but the line for that fare was nearly four hours long.
"And then people started getting sick from the food," she said.
The company has disputed the accounts of passengers who describe the ship as filthy, saying employees are doing everything to ensure people are comfortable.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president for Carnival Cruiselines, said they received an extra generator that allowed them to serve hot food on the ship Wednesday night, and that the food services will be fully operational when they are docked.
That isn't expected until at least 8 p.m., perhaps later. The massive ship still needs to make turns and navigate cross currents on its way to the port — all without the help of its engines.
"This is going to be a long day," Thornton said. "There is no way we can speed up the process."
When passengers arrive in Alabama, their stay will be short. Carnival said in a statement late Wednesday that passengers were being given the option of boarding buses directly to Galveston, Texas, or Houston — a roughly seven-hour drive — or taking a two-hour bus ride to New Orleans, where the company said it booked 1,500 hotel rooms. Those staying in New Orleans will be flown Friday to Houston. Carnival said it will cover all the transportation costs.
"I can't imagine being on that ship this morning and then getting on a bus," said Kirk Hill, whose 30-year-old daughter, Kalin Christine Hill, is on the cruise. "If I hit land in Mobile, you'd have a hard time getting me on a bus."
Hill is booking a flight from Amarillo, Texas, to New Orleans to meet his daughter when she gets there.
Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman, also said the company chose to bus people to New Orleans because it "offered additional capacity and flexibility which was important to us."
Thelbert Lanier was waiting at the Mobile port for his wife, who texted him early Thursday.
"Room smells like an outhouse. Cold water only, toilets haven't work in 3 1/2 days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there," she said in the text message, which was viewed by The Associated Press. "It's 4:00 am. Can't sleep...it's cold & I'm starting to get sick."
Robert Giordano, whose 33-year-old wife Shannon is aboard the cruise liner with a group of friends of hers from Edmond, Okla., said he has yet to speak to someone at Carnival. All his information has come through pre-recorded phone calls, the most recent one Wednesday afternoon when he was told the ship would "probably" arrive in Mobile late Thursday or early Friday. He got better information, he said, when the "Today" show called him.
"A complete utter surprise to me. I'm excited but I didn't know about that," Giordano said. "That's the biggest frustration for me now is that the media knows more than the family members do and certainly more than the passengers do on the ship."
Gulliksen said the company has tried to keep families updated and established a toll-free number for friends and relatives. Gulliksen said about 200 Carnival employees are in Mobile waiting to assist passengers upon their arrival, and some will go on board to assist when the ship sails in.
The ship left Galveston for a four-day cruise last Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. It was about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula when an engine room fire knocked out its primary power source, crippling its water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift on only backup power.
No one was injured in the fire, but a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution.
In Mobile, officials were preparing a cruise terminal that has not been used for a year to help passengers go through customs after their ordeal.
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones questioned the plan to bus passengers to other cities, saying the city has more than enough hotel rooms and its two airports are near the cruise terminal.
"We raised the issue that it would be a lot easier to take a five-minute bus ride than a two-hour bus ride" to New Orleans, Jones said. Jones said Carnival employees will be staying in Mobile.
Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled more than dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged that 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.
Gulliksen said the Triumph's recent mechanical woes involved an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2, and the problem was not related to the fire, he said.
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.
Once docked, the ship will be idle through April.
Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Mobile contributed to this report.