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An operation to tow a disabled cruise ship packed with desperate passengers back to the United States was delayed Thursday after 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 ruptured 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.
Baker complained that passengers were waiting in line for up to four hours for meals she described as "basically bread" or in her case, skimpy sandwiches of tomato and mayonnaise.
"Sanitation is a huge problem. Food is very sporadic," she said.
Terry Thornton, senior VP of marketing at Carnival, told a news conference in Mobile, Alabama that the Triumph could dock as late as midnight eastern time (0500 GMT Friday).
And he said it may be nearly dawn before all of the passengers disembark.
"Once the ship ties up, we estimate that it will take four to five hours to complete debarkation of all of the guests," Thornton told reporters.
"It will take us a bit of time to get the ship tied up and secured once we reach the cruise terminal," he said.
He added that the mammoth Triumph "will be, by far, the largest cruise ship that has ever docked at the port of Mobile."
Thornton blamed the slow pace of the disembarkation on the fact that, with power still being off, there is just one functioning elevator aboard the ship.
"We will not be providing much additional power to the ship. There's not a capability of doing that once the ship docks," Thornton said. "But we have a lot of manpower that we will throw at it."
Carnival has canceled several upcoming sailings of the Triumph and has offered financial compensation and discounted future travel for the distressed passengers.
Thornton said advance teams of custom officials were already onboard the ship, in hopes of speeding up process of clearing the passengers.
He added that one passenger had had to be evacuated from the vessel by coast guard officials for medical reasons, but was unable to provide details.
He said Carnival has snapped up hotel rooms throughout the city of Mobile to accommodate weary travelers and the relatives who have traveled to meet them.
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.