After a week at sea, much of it in conditions described as filthy and not at all the luxury cruise touted in brochures, most passengers aboard the crippled Carnival Triumph will make it to shore Thursday night — only to then face an hours-long bus ride or other travel hassles to finally get back home.
What began as a four-day voyage in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into a vacation nightmare, an odyssey that has relatives of passengers growing frustrated with the cruise line, wondering just how healthy and clean it is aboard the ship.
The more than 4,000 people on board are likely growing irritated, too, but so far many of them have only spoken to relatives, complaining they have had little to no access to food and bathrooms since an engine-room fire disabled the ship Sunday.
When passengers arrive in Alabama, their stay will be short. Carnival said in a statement late Wednesday that passengers were being given the option of boarding buses directly to Galveston, Texas, or Houston — a roughly seven-hour drive — or taking a two-hour bus ride to New Orleans, where the company said it booked 1,500 hotel rooms. Those staying in New Orleans will be flown Friday to Houston. Carnival said it will cover all the transportation costs.
"I can't imagine being on that ship this morning and then getting on a bus," said Kirk Hill, whose 30-year-old daughter, Kalin Christine Hill, is on the cruise. "If I hit land in Mobile, you'd have a hard time getting me on a bus."
Hill is booking a flight from Amarillo, Texas, to New Orleans to meet his daughter when she gets there.
Nellie Betts was in Mobile waiting on her daughter, Nicole Enjoufo, 34, to arrive with her three co-workers who were on the ship. Betts was worried her daughter didn't have enough food and water, and she thought the cruise line should provide rental cars for the passengers to get home, not buses.
"Sure to God they're going to let them drive and not put them on buses," Betts said.
Speaking by phone to NBC's "Today" show Thursday, passenger Janie Baker said conditions on the ship were "extremely terrible." There has been no electricity and few working toilets, she said.
Baker described having to use plastic bags to go to the bathroom and wait in line for hours to get food. She said she once saw a woman pass out while in line.
"It's just a nightmare," she said.
Baker said she and her friends slept with their life vests one night because the ship was leaning and they feared it would tip over.
Vivian Tilley, whose sister, Renee Shanar, is on the ship, said Shanar, of Houston, told her the cabins were hot and smelled like smoke from the engine fire, forcing passengers to stay on the deck. She also said people were getting sick.
The company has disputed the accounts of passengers who describe the ship as filthy, saying employees are doing everything to ensure people are comfortable. Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman said the company chose to bus people to New Orleans because it "offered additional capacity and flexibility which was important to us given that the complexity of the towing operation creates an uncertain arrival time in Mobile."
Robert Giordano, whose 33-year-old wife Shannon is aboard the cruise liner with a group of friends of hers from Edmond, Okla., said he has yet to speak to someone at Carnival. All his information has come through pre-recorded phone calls, the most recent one Wednesday afternoon when he was told the ship would "probably" arrive in Mobile late Thursday or early Friday. He got better information, he said, when the "Today" show called to tell him the vessel would pull in later Thursday.
"A complete utter surprise to me. I'm excited but I didn't know about that," Giordano said. "That's the biggest frustration for me now is that the media knows more than the family members do and certainly more than the passengers do on the ship."
Gulliksen said the Triumph is now expected arrive in Mobile between 8 and 11 p.m. Thursday. He said the company has tried to keep families updated and established a toll-free number for friends and families. Gulliksen said about 200 Carnival employees are in Mobile waiting to assist passengers upon their arrival, and some will go on board to assist when the ship sails in.
The ship left Galveston for a four-day cruise last Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. The ship was about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula when on Sunday, an engine room fire knocked out its primary power source, crippling its water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift on only backup power.
No one was injured in the fire, but a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution.
In Mobile, officials were preparing a cruise terminal that has not been used for a year to help passengers go through customs after their ordeal.
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones questioned the plan to bus passengers to other cities, saying the city has more than enough hotel rooms and its two airports are near the cruise terminal.
"We raised the issue that it would be a lot easier to take a five-minute bus ride than a two-hour bus ride" to New Orleans, Jones said. Jones said Carnival employees will be staying in Mobile.
Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled more than dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged that the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the cause.
"We know it has been a longer journey back than we anticipated at the beginning of the week under very challenging circumstances," Carnival President and CEO Gary Cahill said. "We are very sorry for what our guests have had to endure."
Gulliksen said the Triumph's recent mechanical woes involved an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2. He said there was no evidence between the previous problem and the fire.
Communication with passengers on the Triumph has been limited to brief windows when other cruise ships with working cellular towers have rendezvoused to deliver supplies.
Giordano said he last spoke to his wife, Shannon, on Monday. She told him she waited in line for three hours to get a hot dog and that conditions on the ship were terrible.
"They're having to urinate in the shower. They've been passed out plastic bags to go to the bathroom," Giordano said. "There was fecal matter all over the floor."
Passengers are supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.