MOBILE, Alabama (REUTERS) - Reeking of raw sewage, a crippled cruise ship carrying more than 4,200 people was limping into Mobile, Alabama, on Thursday as passengers awaited the end of a vacation voyage some described as hellish.
The Carnival Triumph was being towed into port by tugboats as the drama played out live on US cable news stations, creating another public relations nightmare for cruise giant Carnival. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury ship grounded off the coast of Italy, with 32 people killed.
Passengers described an overpowering stench on board the ship four days after an engine room fire knocked out power and plumbing across most of the 272m vessel and left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, which went into service in 1999, was on a four-day cruise and on its way back from a stop in Cozumel, Mexico.
After the mishap, toilets and drainpipes overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in sewage and turning the vessel into what some have described as a giant Petri dish.
"The thing I'm looking forward to most is having a working toilet and not having to breathe in the smell of faecal matter," said Mr Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a health-care and hospice company.
Mr Combs, 30, who said he had been travelling with friends and family on the Triumph, had nothing but praise for its crew members, saying they had gone through "hell" cleaning up after some of the passengers on the sea cruise.
"Just imagine the filth," Mr Combs told Reuters. "People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up. They were constantly cleaning."
Mr Terry Thornton, a Carnival Cruise Lines senior vice-president, told reporters in Mobile that additional provisions were laid in on Wednesday, and the ship was now "in excellent shape".
Passenger Donna Gutzman said those aboard the ship were treated to steak and lobster for lunch on Thursday afternoon.
"Our basic needs are being met. For the most part, they are making us happy," Ms Gutzman told CNN.
The ship was expected to arrive in port around 0600 GMT (2pm Singapore time) on Friday, Carnival said. A senior Carnival official said it could take up to five hours to remove all the passengers from the ship, which has only one functioning elevator.
Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival Corp, the ship left Galveston, Texas, a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew. It was supposed to return there on Monday.
A Coast Guard cutter has been escorting the Triumph on its long voyage into port since Monday, and a Coast Guard helicopter ferried about 1,360kg of equipment, including a generator to the stricken ship late on Wednesday.
Earlier in the week, some passengers reported on the poor conditions on the Triumph when they contacted relatives and media before their cellphone batteries died. They said people were getting sick and passengers had been told to use plastic"biohazard" bags as makeshift toilets.
Carnival Cruise Lines chief executive Gerry Cahill said in a statement late on Wednesday that the company had decided to add further payment of US$500 (S$618) a person to help compensate passengers for "very challenging circumstances" aboard the ship.
"We are very sorry for what our guests have had to endure," Mr Cahill said.
Ms Mary Poret, who spoke to her 12-year-old daughter aboard the Triumph on Monday, rejected Mr Cahill's apology in comments to CNN on Thursday, as she waited anxiously in Mobile with a friend for the Triumph's arrival.
"Seeing urine and faeces sloshing in the halls, sleeping on the floor, nothing to eat, people fighting over food, US$500? What's the emotional cost? You can't put money on that," Ms Porte said.
Carnival Corp chairman and CEO Micky Arison faced criticism in January last year for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge of the Costa Concordia crisis after the luxury cruise shop operated by Carnival's Costa Cruises brand grounded on rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio. The tragedy unleashed numerous lawsuits against his company.
The cruise ship mogul has taken a low-key approach to the Triumph situation as well, even as it grabbed a growing share of the US media spotlight. His only known public appearance since Sunday was courtside on Tuesday at a game played by his Miami Heat championship professional basketball team.
"I think they really are trying to do the right thing, but I don't think they have been able to communicate it effectively,"said Ms Marcia Horowitz, an executive who handles crisis management at Rubenstein Associates, a New York-based public relations firm.
"Most of all, you really need a face for Carnival," she added. "You can do all the right things. But unless you communicate it effectively, it will not see the light of day."
The Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, and the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be the primary agency investigating the cause of its engine room fire.
For all the passengers' grievances, they will likely find it difficult to sue the cruise operator for any damages, legal sources said. Over the years, the cruise industry has put in place a legal structure that ring-fences operators from big-money lawsuits.
Rules for seeking redress are spelled out in complex, multi-page ticket contracts that have been the subject of decades of court battles. Victims are often required to proceed with any litigation in remote jurisdictions.