Exhausted passengers disembark stricken Carnival ship in Alabama

MOBILE, Alabama Fri Feb 15, 2013 10:53am IST

The Carnival Triumph cruise ship is towed towards the port of Mobile, Alabama, February 14, 2013. REUTERS/ Lyle Ratliff

The Carnival Triumph cruise ship is towed towards the port of Mobile, Alabama, February 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/ Lyle Ratliff

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MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - A crippled cruise ship that lost power for more than four days in the Gulf of Mexico was pulled into a port in Mobile, Alabama, late on Thursday as passengers cheered the end of a "hellish" voyage marked by overflowing toilets and stinking cabins.

Tugboats pulled the Carnival Triumph into port in a drama that played out live on U.S. cable news stations, creating another public relations nightmare for cruise giant Carnival Corp. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury ship grounded off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.

Exhausted passengers lined the ship's decks, waving towels and flashlights and cheering as it pulled into dock, while hundreds of people watched from the shore.

Carnival officials said it could take up to five hours for the more than 4,200 people on board to disembark the ship, which has only one working elevator.

Once on solid ground, many passengers still had a lengthy journey ahead. More than 100 buses were lined up waiting to carry passengers on a seven-hour bus ride to Galveston, Texas, while others had elected to stay overnight in hotels in Mobile before flying home, Carnival said.

An engine fire on Sunday knocked out power and plumbing across most of the 893-foot (272-metre) vessel and left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, which went into service in 1999, was on a four-day cruise and on its way back from a stop in Cozumel, Mexico.

Over the last four days, passengers described an overpowering stench on parts of the ship and complained to relatives and media by cellphone that toilets and drainpipes overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in sewage and turning the vessel into what some have described as a giant Petri dish.

"The thing I'm looking forward to most is having a working toilet and not having to breathe in the smell of fecal matter," said Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company.

Combs, 30, who said he had been traveling with friends and family on the Triumph, had nothing but praise for its crew members, saying they had gone through "hell" cleaning up after some of the passengers on the sea cruise.

"Just imagine the filth," Combs told Reuters. "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," he said.

Officials greeted passengers with warm food and blankets and cell phones. Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill told reporters he planned to board the ship and personally apologize to passengers for their ordeal.

"I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "I know it was difficult. I want to apologize for subjecting our guests to that," he said.

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

Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival Corp (CCL.N) (CCL.L), the ship left Galveston a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew. It was supposed to return there on Monday.

A Coast Guard cutter escorted the Triumph on its long voyage into port since Monday, and a Coast Guard helicopter ferried about 3,000 lbs (1,360 kg) of equipment including a generator to the stricken ship late on Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, some passengers reported on the poor conditions on the Triumph. They said people were getting sick and passengers had been 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 permanently evacuated and slept the rest of the voyage on the decks under sheets, passengers said.

'VERY CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES'

Cahill has issued several apologies and Carnival, the world's largest cruise company, says passengers will receive a full credit for the cruise plus transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage, plus a payment of $500 a person to help compensate for the "very challenging circumstances" aboard the ship.

Mary Poret, who spoke to her 12-year-old daughter aboard the Triumph on Monday, rejected Cahill's apology in comments to CNN on Thursday, as she waited anxiously in Mobile with a friend for the Triumph's arrival.

"Seeing urine and feces sloshing in the halls, sleeping on the floor, nothing to eat, people fighting over food, $500? What's the emotional cost? You can't put money on that," Poret said.

Some passengers said conditions onboard improved on Thursday after the generator was delivered to the ship, providing power for a grill to cook hot food.

Carnival Corp Chairman and CEO Micky Arison faced criticism in January 2012 for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge of the Costa Concordia crisis after the luxury cruise ship operated by Carnival's Costa Cruises brand grounded on rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio. The tragedy unleashed numerous lawsuits against his company.

The cruise ship mogul has taken a low-key approach to the Triumph situation as well, even as it grabbed a growing share of the U.S. media spotlight. His only known public appearance since Sunday was courtside on Tuesday at a game played by his Miami Heat championship professional basketball team.

"I think they really are trying to do the right thing, but I don't think they have been able to communicate it effectively," said Marcia Horowitz, an executive who handles crisis management at Rubenstein Associates, a New York-based public relations firm.

"Most of all, you really need a face for Carnival," she added. "You can do all the right things. But unless you communicate it effectively, it will not see the light of day."

Carnival Corp shares closed down 11 cents at $37.35 in trading on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares closed down 4 percent at $37.46 on Wednesday after the company said voyage disruptions and repair costs related to Carnival Triumph could shave up to 10 cents a share off its second-half earnings.

The Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be the primary agency investigating the cause of its engine room fire.

Earlier this month, Carnival repaired an electrical issue 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 sources 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 Kevin Gray in Miami, Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)

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