A cruise ship disabled for five nightmarish days in the Gulf limped under tow into port with more than 4,000 people aboard late Thursday, passengers raucously cheering the end to an ocean odyssey they say was marked by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many raucously cheered at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship Triumph. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times on its final docking approach as some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.
The first of some 3,000 passengers were starting to come off the ship. At about 10:15 p.m. Central time some aboard the Triumph were walking down an enclosed gangway to a terminal at Mobile, Ala.
As people started disembarking, others on board waiting were chanting, "Let me off, let me off!"
A few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal were waving lights at the ship as it was carefully making its way alongside. Those about were screaming, whistling and taking pictures.
Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph inched into port about 9:15 p.m. Central time. It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
And even once it is stable, it will take four to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off, said Carnival senior vice president of marketing Terry Thornton.
Passengers on board in texts and flitting cellphone calls described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground. But for now, they waved towels at the throng at dockside and even motorists who stopped on the shoulder of major Interstate 10 near the port to watch the ship come in.
Carnival have the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Some also can stay in Mobile.
"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."
Buses are standing by to take them to their next stop and Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
It was the end of a cruise that wasn't at all what it should look like in a brochure.
Thornton said the ship had been fully cleared by customs and Border Patrol, and that should speed up the process.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were every poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
On Thursday night, dozens of chartered buses -- with markings from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -- had gathered in Mobile. Carnival said 100 buses had been reserved and that it will cover transportation costs.
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will be headed to a Mobile shipyard for assessment, Thornton said.
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 with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just when it was getting close to port.
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