More than 4,200 passengers on board Carnival cruise ship when engine room fire left ship drifting without power or sanitation
The Carnival Triumph finally made port on Thursday night, after what should have been an idyllic four-day cruise turned into a grueling week-long ordeal for more than 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew.
Some kissed the ground as they disembarked the ship, while others swore never to go on another cruise again. Many spoke of the well-documented unsanitary conditions on board the 272-metre Triumph, which lost power in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
“It was horrible, just horrible,” said Maria Hernandez, 28. She had been on a “girls’ trip” with friends, she told the Associated Press, and had woken to smoke in her lower-level room after the fire broke out in one of the engine rooms. Although swiftly extinguished, the blaze left the ship listing helplessly.
“I just can’t wait to be home,” Hernandez said. She faced a bus journey and flight to get back to Angleton, Texas.
As the ship was towed into port on Thursday, passengers transmitted details of the grisly conditions on board. Joy Dyer, in texts shared with the Guardian, said “floating waste is all over the place” and described the smell as “rank”. Passengers were forced to conduct bodily functions using showers, sinks and red bags, Dyer said. She was among a number of passengers who had taken to sleeping above deck to escape the stench of the rooms below – where “slick floors are usually human waste overflows”.
Carnival Cruise Lines, which owns the Carnival Triumph, now faces the costly process of paying out compensation to the 3,143 passengers. The company has promised to fully reimburse all travellers, provide a full cruise credit for another Carnival voyage and to give an extra $500 in compensation
Even so, some passengers did not seem keen to take to the seas again.
“This is my first and last cruise,” Kendall Jenkins told reporters. Deborah Knight, 56, from Houston, said she would not be boarding the buses provided by Carnival. Her husband drove in to collect her instead and the pair had checked into a downtown Mobile hotel.
“I want a hot shower and a daggum Whataburger,” said Knight, who was wearing a bathrobe over her clothes as her bags were unloaded from her husband’s pickup truck. She said she was afraid to eat the food on board and had become sick while on the ship.
One passenger participated in a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ live chat as the ship neared port, providing proof via photographs that he was onboard but not giving his name.
“People are getting sick because sewage [everywhere]; urine on the floors, waste in bags, and undercooked food. Strong fecal and urine stench near the cabins and just a poor environment. The workers rushed a lot of the processes. My mom is actually sick,” the passenger wrote on Reddit. He said he would go on a cruise again, describing the trip as: “Just like camping. Except crowded and unhygienic.”
Those hoping to jump straight into a hot shower and comfortable bed after leaving the ship were disappointed as Carnival had booked hotel rooms in New Orleans, two hours away, and Houston, a seven-hour drive.
The woe continued for some passengers as one of the buses chartered by Carnival broke down on the way to New Orleans. “Fortunately we had an extra bus that was trailing the group of buses, so that bus was able to be dispatched and picked up the guests on the other bus and they continued on their way to New Orleans,” Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told the Guardian.
The decision to transport the weary passengers 145 miles east was criticised by the mayor of Mobile earlier in the week, but Gulliksen said Carnival had “looked at all options closely”.
“Ultimately, we selected to stage the hotel and airport operation in New Orleans as 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.”
He said Carnival had reserved “hundreds” of hotel rooms in Mobile over the coming days for employees.
As people arrived in the early hours at the Hilton in New Orleans, many people were tired and did not want to talk, Associated Press reported. After the extended time at sea, those checking in faced long lines to check into rooms, with some becoming emotional as they described the deplorable conditions of the ship.
“It wasn’t a vacation any more; it was like survival mode. Eat what you can. Snack when you can. It was awful,” said passenger Tammy Garcia.
At Houston airport, where some passengers landed after spending the night in New Orleans, there were emotional reunions with family members.
Tearful behind her dark glasses and dressed in chic clothes, Stephanie Guillen said that not being in touch with her three young children until the last day was the hardest part of it all.
“It was heartbreaking not to be able to hear my kids’ voices or just tell them everything was OK,” she said. “It was terrible. There was sewage water – but there was water on the first day. Bags of poop everywhere, it was pretty gross.”
Asked if she would consider suing Carnival, she said: “Yes, I’ve thought about it. I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to do that.”
Jeny Gonzalez and her friend Liza Mendoza said that apart from problems with the bathrooms, conditions had not been as dire as others had described. Mark Peaden, a former Marine who lives a short walk from the port in Galveston, was also stoic.
“The scariest part was when we first had the situation when we were dead in the water and we spent a whole day out there with nobody else around us.” Relief came when the US coast guard arrived on the second day, he said.
“We were on the bottom floor where the fire started. But our bathroom worked about 80% of the time. Some people had it bad, their whole areas flooded, whatever on the floor, as y’all have probably seen, people camping out, the tent cities. Everybody overall made the best of it.
Peaden said he would probably take Carnival up on its offer of a free voyage and praised the company’s on-board staff for their response to the crisis. “They actually came around and played games with [my family], board games, sat down and played cards with them. So they tried to make it as good as they possibly could. Really what was bad was the bathrooms not working, things of that nature,” he said.
Still, Peaden blamed poor maintenance for the ship’s failure: “I think the biggest problem with the Triumph is that it kept having problems and they kept trying to put Band Aids on it to keep it going and that Band Aid finally busted, and they’re paying for it now.”
Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Gerry Cahill was on the scene in Mobile as the ship docked. “I know the conditions on board were very poor,” he told reporters at a news conference as passengers unloaded. “I know it was difficult. I want to apologize for subjecting our guests to that,” he said.
“We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience and clearly we failed in this particular case,” Cahill added.
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. Earlier this month Carnival repaired an electrical issue on one of the Triumph’s alternators. The company said there was no evidence of any connection between the repair and the fire.