Crippled US ship comes ashore after hellish cruise

Exhausted passengers who spent four days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with no power and few working restrooms streamed off a stricken Carnival cruise ship late Thursday.

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

At around 0300 GMT Friday, the crippled ship limped into the port in Mobile, Alabama, after being towed here by a flotilla of tugboats -- ending a hot and miserable ordeal for some 4,000 people on board.

Families cheered from dockside and waved to relatives who stood on the deck and lined the balconies of the darkened ocean liner, which has been likened to a hulking skyscraper adrift for days on the open water.

"It is great to be on ground," Rob Kenny told CNN moments after disembarking, saying he looked forward to being reunited with his wife and children in Dallas. Another passenger knelt and kissed the dock.

Brooklyn Burgess said she broke down when she was reunited with her father.

"It was just so good to see him, after being on that boat for that long and not knowing when or how we were getting back," she said.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill told reporters shortly after the cruise ship Triumph's arrival that the first order of business would be to apologize to the passengers for their ordeal.

"I would like to reiterate the apology that I made earlier, because I know that the conditions on board were very poor and it was very difficult, and I want to apologize again for subjecting the guests to that," he said.

"We pride ourselves in providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."

A flotilla of tugboats pulled the massive ocean liner 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 ship 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.

Several 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 spelled out the word "help" with their own bodies.

Other passengers reached by telephone described a stomach-churning ordeal and sent photographs of the nightmare voyage, showing mattresses dragged out of stifling rooms and lined up on deck.

Jamie Baker, a passenger from Texas, told US media that pipes had burst, the toilet system was backed up and cabins were flooded with dirty water.

Baker complained that passengers had to wait 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.

Carnival officials said that even after Triumph docks, it could be another several hours before all of the passengers disembark, and some of the travelers face long bus or car rides back to Texas or other far-off destinations.

Terry Thornton, senior vice president of marketing at Carnival, blamed the slow pace of the disembarkation on the fact that, with power still cut, there was just one functioning elevator aboard the disabled ship.

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 that left the vessel without power.

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

Carnival has also 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 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.

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