(CNN) — A little more than four days after their ship was disabled by an engine fire, the more than 4,200 people on board the Carnival cruise ship Triumph finally reached port Thursday night.
Crews were busy tying the ship to the dock at the Alabama Cruise Terminal as cheering passengers hung over balcony rails or waited in lines to exit the vessel.
It’s almost over for the 4,227 passengers and crew stuck on a filthy, disabled cruise ship that limped into port three days after it was due.
Once the ship ties up at the dock, it will take four to five hours to get everyone off, said Terry Thornton, a Carnival vice president, said.
As the ship approached Mobile, passengers were thrilled.
“I just had a crab sandwich with lobster for lunch because they are finishing off all the food,” said Ed Buck, who was staying on an upper floor. “Life is good. People are very excited right now. We’re getting back. You know, I think the media’s made a lot of — made it sound real bad. It’s not quite as bad as everybody says.”
Most people didn’t agree with Buck, who said he has cruised 13 times and will do so again.
“I don’t know how much more we could have took,” passenger Larry Poret said via cell phone. Poret was aboard with his 12-year-old daughter, Rebekah, who said the ordeal has been “really, really difficult.”
Crews were working to clean up the ship as it neared the dock.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” passenger Slyvester Davis said, adding that things improved once officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board announced they were coming aboard. “It’s sort of frustrating because it doesn’t look now the way it looked and the way we’ve been living.”
Many passengers lauded the work of the crew, saying they had worked long shifts to make sure their guests were as comfortable as possible.
“The crew has worked nonstop,” passenger Julie Morgan said. “They have been, from daylight to dark. I think one shift didn’t even — once they got a break … it was too hot on their deck to go to sleep.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Coast Guard members and a Carnival team boarded the ship before it arrived in port to help speed efforts to get passengers off as quickly as possible, he said.
Some families gathered at the Alabama Cruise Terminal, far from where the ship was originally supposed to dock in Galveston, Texas. Marissa Jenks said her family reported they had a hot meal Thursday morning and crew members were trying to clean up the ship as it neared port.
Adam Buck, a spokesman for the city of Mobile, said about 75 people were waiting for their loved ones. Family members who spoke to CNN said they had come from Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas. Some had come in as early as Wednesday but the bulk of people arrived Thursday afternoon, with each hour bringing a few more cars.
Most of the anxious families couldn’t bear the thought of their relatives being on a bus for hours and had gotten hotel rooms in Mobile where the homecoming would include a long shower and a meal.
Larry Poret confirmed reports of dire conditions aboard the ship, saying urine and feces streamed in the halls and down walls after toilet facilities failed, soaking the mattress of a friend of his who was sleeping in a hallway.
Emergency power failures caused section doors to slam shut, panicking some passengers who had no idea what was happening.
“We definitely are not adequately informed,” Poret said.
The Carnival Triumph, originally carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members, was on its way home Sunday when a fire off the coast of Mexico left the vessel listing to the side and drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents. Since then, two passengers have been taken off the ship because of medical situations, including one woman who the Coast Guard said had a possible stroke.
A ‘floating petri dish’
Jorge Rodriguez, a doctor of internal medicine, said the sordid conditions on board make the Triumph a “floating petri dish.”
“So far, there hasn’t been an outbreak of anything, but … it’s in the Gulf. It’s warm,” he said. “You don’t have sanitary conditions, so hopefully they’ll get back to shore … before anything breaks out.”
Raw sewage is a major health risk, Rodriguez said, but respiratory infections could also spread quickly. Spoiling food could unleash E. coli bacteria, salmonella and other types of food poisoning.
“People on that cruise need to be careful for the next day to couple of weeks,” he said. “They may have contracted something that’s just sort of festering under the surface and won’t come to full-blown infectious status for the next couple of weeks.”
Carnival promises an army of about 200 employees will take care of its passengers once they clear customs.
Passengers can board buses to Galveston or Houston, Texas, or spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.
Carnival said it has reserved and arranged approximately 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.
Compensation for travelers
The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.
Brent Nutt, whose wife, Bethany, is on the ship, said it’s not worth it.
“First of all, we only paid $350 for her to go on this cruise. Her safety and her well-being are worth a whole lot more than $350,” he said.
And the free stuff?
“I promise you, none of my family members that are on there will probably ever, ever take another cruise,” he said.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.
Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of Skift.com, a travel website.
“The passengers on the ship aren’t going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home,” he said. Travel “insurance really doesn’t cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn’t interrupted and they aren’t incurring extra expenses … so they can’t be compensated that way.”
Still, there’s no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.
“It’s a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise,” Clampet said.
The tension grows
Nerves are frayed on board, where passengers have waited in food lines for as long as four hours, said Nick Ware, whose mother is on the ship with her boyfriend. Ware said arguments are breaking out after people at the front of lines grab as many provisions as they can.
“The person in the front of the line is allowed to take however much he wants, so people see the person in front of them taking too much, (and) they start to get concerned they’re not going to get any,” Ware said.
People at the rear of the line ended up with buns and condiments — no burger patties, he said.
Meanwhile, on shore, Kim McKerreghan waited at the Port of Mobile, worried about her 10-year-old daughter and her ex-husband.
Her daughter called her in a panic Sunday after the fire broke out.
McKerreghan said the call was absolutely “gut-wrenching.”
“Momma, please just come get me, just come get me. It’s so hot. I don’t want to be here, Momma. Come get me, please,” the scared daughter told her, McKerreghan said. “Your heart stops, your stomach knots up and you just want to fall to the ground.”
Bad luck before
The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.
And it’s not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line’s ships.
In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship’s passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.
Anxious family members
McKerreghan drove from Texas with a friend, Mary Poret, whose preteen daughter is on board, with Poret’s ex-husband.
Poret also received a frightening call from her daughter, about 30 hours after the fire.
“She was hysterical, crying hysterically. She was scared. She don’t know what was going to happen next,” Poret said.
“And what broke my heart the very most was her saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again,’ and that’s really hard to hear from your 12-year-old daughter.”
After this ill-fated cruise, the Triumph won’t host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.
– CNN’s Tom Watkins, Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho, Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.