Desperation on board as cruise ship towed to port

An operation to tow a disabled cruise ship packed with desperate passengers back to the United States was again delayed on Thursday when one of the cables attaching it to a flotilla of tugs snapped.

The Carnival Triumph lost power in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a fire, leaving more than 4,000 passengers and crew sleeping in corridors, waiting hours for sparse meals and relieving themselves in plastic bags.

The vessel, operated by Florida-based Carnival Cruise Lines, is being hauled towards Mobile, Alabama by three tug boats, as many of the passengers on board signal news media helicopters with "SOS" messages scrawled on sheets.

Thursday's lost tow cable triggered concern that the ship might float adrift again, hours before it was due to berth in Mobile, but a Carnival spokesman said that the rescue crews were able to quickly replace the line.

"The tug has been reattached and the ship is en route to Mobile again," Joyce Oliva, a spokeswoman with Carnival Cruise Lines, told AFP

Joined by telephone, passengers described a stomach-churning ordeal and sent photographs showing grim hygiene conditions.

Desperate travelers waved homemade flags fashioned from bed sheets to express their distress. One sign read: "S.O.S." Another: "We R Not OK."

At one point a group lay on the sundeck and used their own bodies to spell out: "Help."

Jamie Baker, a passenger from Texas told NBC News that pipes had burst, the toilet system is backed up and cabins have dirty water sloshing around in them.

"My friends and I are doing OK, but it is extremely terrible conditions," she said.

She complained that passengers were waiting in line up to four hours for meals she described as "basically bread" or, on her case, skimpy sandwiches of tomato and mayonnaise.

"Sanitation is a huge problem. Food is very sporadic," Baker said.

Carnival has canceled several upcoming sailings of the Triumph and has offered financial compensation and discounted future travel for the distressed passengers.

The Miami-based operator said cruises on the ship, which left the port of Galveston in Texas on February 7, have been halted until at least mid-April.

The Triumph had originally been scheduled to return to port early Monday after a weekend stop in Cozumel in Mexico, before the engine room blaze left the vessel without power.

In January 2012 another Carnival ship, the Costa Concordia, ran aground and sank off the Italian coast, killing 32.