MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - Thousands of passengers who spent five days stuck on a stinking cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico headed home on Friday by bus, plane or car, and relished the chance for a warm shower and working toilets after finally arriving back on land.
“I got some sleep. I got a shower. A working toilet was really nice,” said Nancy Petrone, 58, who was heading to southern California after spending the night in Mobile, Alabama, where tugboats had pulled the stricken Carnival Triumph into port.
It took several hours for more than 3,000 vacationers to make their way off the ship after it arrived late on Thursday. Some travelers kissed the ground when they walked off, and others disembarked wearing the ship’s white bath robes, part souvenir and part protection against the chilly night air.
About 100 buses waited to carry passengers on the seven-hour journey to Galveston, Texas, while other buses departed for shorter rides to New Orleans or to hotels in Mobile.
One bus broke down on its way to New Orleans, said passenger Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company.
Carnival officials said the Triumph, which entered service in 1999, would be towed on Friday to a Mobile shipyard for damage assessment.
The 893-foot (272-metre)vessel was returning to Galveston from Cozumel, Mexico, on the third day of a four-day cruise when an engine-room fire knocked out power and plumbing across most of the ship on Sunday.
Passengers described an overpowering stench on parts of the ship and complained to relatives and media via cellphone that toilets and drainpipes had overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in raw sewage.
The saga, which received extensive coverage on U.S. cable news stations, was another public relations disaster for cruise giant Carnival Corp. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury liner ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.
The nature of the troubles aboard the Triumph inspired bathroom-humor banter among late-night comedy shows and the amateur comedians who took to Twitter with poop puns.
Passengers had some harsh words for Carnival but praised the efforts of the ship’s crew during the ordeal.
“Just imagine the filth,” said Combs, 30. “People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up. They were constantly cleaning.”
Facing criticism over the company’s response, Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill boarded the ship after it arrived in Mobile to personally apologize to passengers.
“We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience and, clearly, we failed in this particular case,” Cahill said.
Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival Corp, the ship left Galveston a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew. It was supposed to return on Monday.
Some passengers said conditions deteriorated rapidly on the Triumph earlier in the week, with people on board getting sick and being told to use plastic “biohazard” bags as makeshift toilets.
Smoke from the engine fire was so thick that passengers on the lower decks in the rear of the ship had to be evacuated and relocated on other decks of the 14-story ship, where they slept under sheets for the rest of the voyage, passengers said.
Some said they tried to pass the time playing cards and organizing Bible study groups, as well as scavenger hunts for the children who were on board.
Conditions improved on Thursday after a generator was delivered to the ship, providing power for a grill to cook hot meals. Passengers said toilets began flushing again and the ship served steaks and lobster - a welcome relief after a steady diet of cold cucumber and cheese sandwiches.
Cahill has issued several apologies and Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, said passengers will be reimbursed in full, plus transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage, and an additional payment of $500 per person to help compensate them for the ordeal.
Several passengers scoffed at the offer.
“If I go on another cruise, it will not be with Carnival,” Petrone said on Friday. “I plan to return their voucher for a free cruise.”
Carnival Corp Chairman and CEO Micky Arison drew criticism in January 2012 for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge during the Costa Concordia crisis. The tragedy resulted in numerous lawsuits being filed against his company.
Arison has not publicly commented on the Triumph incident.
Carnival Corp shares closed down 11 cents at $37.35 in trading on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company canceled 14 upcoming Triumph voyages that were scheduled through mid-April.
The Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, and the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be the primary agency investigating the cause of the engine room fire.
Earlier this month, Carnival repaired an electrical problem on one of the Triumph’s alternators. The company said there was no evidence of any connection between the repair and the fire.
For all the passengers’ grievances, they will likely find it difficult to sue the cruise operator for any damages, legal analysts said. Over the years, the cruise industry has put in place a legal structure that shields operators from big-money lawsuits.
Additional reporting by David Adams and Colleen Jenkins; Writing by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; Editing by David Adams, Jon Boyle and Gunna Dickson