MOBILE, Ala. — This is not at all how it looked in the brochure: Pulled by a tugboat at a maddeningly slow pace, the cruise ship Carnival Triumph headed to port late Thursday as miserable passengers told stories of overflowing toilets, food shortages, foul odors and dangerously dark passageways.
As the vessel docked in Mobile, beleaguered passengers shouted and cheered “Hello, Mobile” and “Roll Tide” to hundreds of people gathered at the terminal. But their ordeal was hours from being over. That’s because the passengers — carrying their luggage, with only one functioning elevator on the 14-story ship — first had to get off the vessel before starting another journey, this time via bus.
Carnival said passengers had the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston, or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. The company said it had booked 1,500 hotel rooms in the Louisiana city, and passengers staying there would be flown Friday to Houston.
Carnival Cruise Lines’ chief executive officer, Gerry Cahill, said at a news conference that he appreciated the patience of the 3,000 passengers on board and promised to board the ship and personally apologize.
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Earlier Thursday — four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled by an engine-room fire in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico — the more than 4,200 passengers and crew members suffered another setback when towline problems brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour.
Disgusted by the foul air and heat on the lower decks, many passengers hauled mattresses and bed sheets onto the top deck and slept there, staying put in a soaking rain. As the ship approached the coast, a slew of Carnival workers removed the bedding and took it downstairs.
As the vessel drew within cellphone range, passengers vented their anger.
“Today they cleaned the ship, they’re serving better food, covering up basically, but at least they’re making it more bearable,” said Kalin Hill, of Houston, who boarded the Triumph as part of a bachelorette party.
In a text message, she described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
“The lower floors had it the worst, the floors ‘squish’ when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors,” Hill wrote. “Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes.”
Renee Shanar, of Houston, was on board with her husband, who she said has heart trouble. They were told they will be among the first to disembark, she said.
“I don’t believe them; they’ve been lying to us from the beginning,” Shanar said.
Shanar said passengers initially were given only cold cuts, such as 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, she said.
“There’s poop and urine all along the floor,” she said. “The floor is flooded with sewer water … and we had to poop in bags.”
Too large, too fast
The problems of the Triumph fit into a larger picture, one of a cruise industry that increasingly is priced for the middle class but that critics say has become too large, too fast, and needs stronger, more consistent oversight.
With the industry’s popularity come concerns over safety, pollution and the impact of thousands of tourists. Communities from Key West, Fla., to Charleston, S.C., are weighing the economic gains against the cultural and environmental impact of an industry boasting ships that can accommodate more than 6,000 people.
“There are more ships out there, so we are seeing a higher number of incidents like this, and that is not good for the cruise industry,” said Ross Klein, a faculty member at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, who has testified before Congress on the safety and environmental impact of cruise ships.
Passengers left the Port of Galveston in Texas last Thursday for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating ketchup on buns.
“It’s like being locked in a Porta-Potty for days,” said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Texas, as the ship crept closer to Mobile Thursday. “We’ve lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse.”
The Triumph’s misadventures will not necessarily slow the popularity of cruising, said Matthew Jacob, an analyst with ITG Investment Research.
While there may be some fallout, he said, most regular travelers have gotten used to seeing television reports about cruises that were aborted because of mechanical problems and hearing about viruses that ran rampant among passengers and crew members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 16 outbreaks of the norovirus on cruise ships in 2012. “We don’t see any spikes downward,” Jacob said.
There were last year, however, after the grounding of Costa Concordia, a ship operated by a Carnival subsidiary. Thirty-two people were killed in the incident off the Italian coast, and Carnival, the world’s leading cruise operator, halted advertising for a time. Bookings dropped, and Carnival and other operators had to cut rates and offer promotions for cruises last summer.
However the plight of the Triumph plays out in public opinion, the damage to the bottom line is substantial: On Wednesday, Carnival estimated that costs including the ship’s repair and the cancellation of cruises on it over the next three months would reduce the company’s earnings during the first half of 2013 by 8 to 10 cents a share.
There is also the matter of potential litigation by passengers, although the ability of passengers to sue cruise-ship operators is sharply limited, lawyers said.
The company disputed accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable. Carnival didn’t immediately respond to questions about illnesses reported by some passengers.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president for Carnival, said the ship received an extra generator that allowed hot food to be served.
“This is going to be a long day,” he said earlier. “There is no way we can speed up the process.”
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 3½ days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there,” she said in the text message. “It’s 4:00 am. Can’t sleep … it’s cold & I’m starting to get sick.”
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the company tried to keep families updated and established a toll-free number for friends and relatives. Gulliksen said about 200 Carnival employees were in Mobile waiting to assist passengers upon their arrival.
Carnival said the original plan was to tow the ship to Progreso, Mexico, because it was the closest port, but by the time tugboats arrived, the ship had drifted about 90 miles north due to strong currents, putting it nearly equidistant to Mobile. It was also logistically easier for the company.
Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the 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.
Passengers are supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival said Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.