Desperation on board as cruise ship towed to port

The stricken Carnival ship Triumph was finally due to arrive back in port late Thursday, bringing a welcome end to a nightmarish ocean voyage for some 4,000 desperate passengers and crew.

At around 8:50 pm (0250 GMT Friday), the crippled vessel was about less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from port and expected to arrive in Mobile, Alabama within the hour.

What was supposed to have been a pleasurable excursion in the Gulf of Mexico turned into a hellish ordeal, after an engine room fire on Sunday left the ship without the power needed to prepare meals or flush toilets.

A flotilla of tugboats was pulling the massive oceanliner into port, in an operation that took longer than anticipated because of a delay when the towline for one of the boats snapped and had to be replaced.

Some of the passengers on the Triumph, which is operated by Florida-based Carnival Cruise Lines, signaled news media helicopters with "SOS" messages scrawled on sheets, desperate to flee the stench and mess that they had endured for four days.

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

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

At one point, a group lay on the sundeck and spelled out the word "help" with their own bodies."

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

"My friends and I are doing OK, but (these are) 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 said that once the Triumph docks, it could be another several hours 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 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 was 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 to speed up the process of clearing passengers.

He added that one passenger had had to be evacuated from the vessel by US 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. But 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.