By Gene Sloan, Jason Blakeney, Jayne Clark and Gary Strauss
MOBILE, Ala. - The cruise from hell is lasting longer than expected.
The crippled Carnival Triumph cruise ship was expected to be towed into port here at about 4 p.m. Thursday. Now, it looks like it won't land until between 10 p.m. to midnight. And the 3,142 passengers may have to wait an additional 4.5 hours until they're all able to disembark by early Friday morning.
Wind, sea currents and the sluggish speed of the the towing operating has caused the multihour delay, further hampered by a snapped tow line as the ship began entering the channel south of Mobile Bay, according to Carnival Cruise Lines Senior Vice President Terry Thornton.
A replacement tug boat already was in position, but when the replacement vessel was put into place, the tow rope snapped. "The cruise ship did not begin progressing back toward the terminal until 2 p.m.," Thornton said.
Getting passengers off will be delayed because there is only one functioning elevator on the Triumph and because of the size of the ship - the largest ever to dock at the Alabama Cruise Terminal.The channel narrows to 400 feet inside Mobile Bay, and the ship was about 115 feet wide. It was traveling about 5 mph.
"This is going to be a long day," Thornton said. "There is no way we can speed up the process."
A Sunday fire in Triumph's engine room cut power to the ship, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico and turning a fun holiday cruise into a hellish nightmare for scores of passengers and crew. Passengers have been complaining about terrible conditions on board, with backed up toilets, feces and urine on floors, little food and electrical power. Some passengers were sleeping in tents outside to escape sweltering temperatures in overheated cabins.
Television images showed passengers with signs of "Help" and "I love you" hanging from the 14-story ship. And as the ship neared port and came within range of cellphone access, passengers sent out pictures of sewage-stained carpets and walls, and garbage-strewn hallways.
"Under normal operation, if the ship had normal power ... that transit would normally take three hours," Thornton said. "But because of the circumstances with the power of the ship, we are expecting the transit to take somewhere between seven and 10 hours."
Once on shore, passengers face long rides home or overnight stays in hotels.
As the slow-moving ship came within sight of shore and cellphone range Thursday afternoon, Renee Shanar of Houston, who was on board with her husband, said Carnival told passengers that they won't make port until midnight.
Shanar said passengers have food, but toilets aren't flushing. She said some people have food poisoning, and older people have fallen and injured themselves.
Shanar said the couple has a windowless cabin, so they have been sleeping outside. She said the food has been distributed on the ninth floor, and some of the elderly have needed younger people to bring it to them. They were initially only given cold meals, like turkey and vegetable sandwiches. Then another cruise line dropped off hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, but the line for that fare was nearly four hours long.
"And then people started getting sick from the food," she said.
Family members awaiting the Triumph on shore are just as angry and frustrated.
"It's been a nightmare for me and my wife, and (our experience) is nothing compared to what they are experiencing on ship,'' says Rickey Felts, 55, of Houston. Felts drove seven hours to be here when the Triumph arrives. His daughter, Ashlie, had been excited to take the cruise. That changed when the engine-room fire disabled the ship.
"She called me up screaming. She said it's horrible,'' Felts said. "She said they were handing out poop bags, and that was her exact words, and telling them to pee in the showers."
Mike Padilla arrived in Mobile from Houston Wednesday night to meet his wife, Kerry, a Triumph passenger. The trip was a surprise gift for Kerry's 40th birthday. She went with her mother, sister and two friends.
Padilla was able to speak to Kerry at about noon Thursday and said she was handling the situation well. "She said they were peeing in the bathtub ... She said it was awesome," Padilla said. "She said it was like a tent city, that it was like a big camping trip for her. She said they were still having fun and still trying to make the best of it."
Thornton said pilots to navigate the channel into the port, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Carnival staff, will board the ship in the coming hours. He expects debarkation to begin immediately after the gangway is secured without need for passengers to go through customs.
Carnival has nearly 200 employees in Mobile to help prepare for the ship's arrival.
Passengers have been more comfortable during because of helicopter deliveries made to the ship, Thornton said.
News of the Triumph's earlier mechanical woes have also surfaced. The ship's midday departure from Galveston on Jan. 28 was delayed until about 8 p.m. due to propulsion issues. But Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told the Associated Press that the problem with the ship's alternator was repaired and didn't appear to be linked to Sunday's fire. The Triumph is one of the older ships in Carnival's fleet of 24 vessels.
The Triumph's woes have clipped Carnival shares the past two days. Thursday, the stock closed at $37.35, down 4.3% since Tuesday.
Amid the horrific reports of troubles on the ship, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill acknowledged conditions on board the ship are "challenging."
"No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions on board the ship," Cahill said. "We obviously are very, very sorry about what is taking place."
Carnival has reserved 1,500 hotel rooms in New Orleans to accommodate customers who want to rest overnight Thursday before continuing home. The cruise line also has chartered planes to ferry passengers on Friday. Passengers who prefer to get back to Houston or Galveston will be bused from Mobile.
The Coast Guard, along with a team from the National Transportation Safety Board, has opened an investigation into the cause of the fire. The NTSB said the Bahamas Maritime Agency will lead the investigation because the ship carries a Bahamian flag.
"We have investigators who are mariners as well," said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway, and an expert in finding the cause of fires. "They have investigated other fires on cruise ships."
Although the blaze was contained, Carnival said, it knocked out the power that runs air conditioning, elevators and toilets in passenger areas and kitchen equipment used to prepare hot meals.
The vessel's freshwater system was knocked down until Monday, Carnival said, when toilets in some areas of the ship were working again. Enough power was restored to allow for some hot food at a buffet.
After evaluating options on Monday, the cruise line decided to tow the ship back to port, Gulliksen said. Because Carnival ships tend to sail full, there may have been no space to accommodate passengers on other ships, retired cruise line executive Art Sbarsky surmised.
"Given a choice, I'd rather be on a ship the size of Triumph than bobbing around in a (life boat)," Sbarsky said.
Jay Herring, a former senior officer for Carnival Cruise Lines, said one of the biggest concerns crew members will have until the ship docks is the potential for disease outbreak, particularly norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea.
"Housekeeping, others are probably working double shifts to keep the mess clean and wipe down and sanitize all the common areas," said Herring, who worked for Carnival from 2002 to 2004 and spent four months on the Triumph.
The ship was 150 miles from the coast of Mexico when it lost power, and Carnival initially planned to tow it to the Mexican port of Progreso, but strong currents pushed the ship 90 miles north by the time tugs reached the vessel, making a tow to Alabama more logical.
Travel agent Monte Akers of CruiseOne in Houston said he hasn't heard from a family of six he had booked on the sailing, but he said he was impressed with how Carnival was handling the situation so far.
Within hours of the fire, Carnival announced that passengers on the ship would get full refunds, and it later added a credit for a future cruise.
"Typically, when these things happen, cruise lines will give vouchers for only a portion of the cruise," Akers said.
Carnival will offer full refunds to passengers booked on upcoming canceled cruises, along with discounts for a future cruise.
The company said concerned family members of passengers can call 888-290-5095 or 305-406-5534.
The Carnival Triumph fire is just the latest in a string of serious incidents involving cruise ships. The most serious was the capsizing of the Costa Concordia in January 2012 in Italy that left 32 passengers dead.