MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The miserable passengers aboard the ill-fated Carnival cruise ship were slowly making their long journey home Thursday after crews replaced 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."