Triumph passengers head home as ship heads for repairs

Friday, February 15, 2013 - 9:32am

CNN) -- What are the odds of this?

Passengers fleeing the crippled cruise liner Carnival Triumph aboard a charter bus to New Orleans found themselves stuck -- again -- when the bus taking them from Mobile, Alabama, broke down Friday morning on the side of the highway.

"You wouldn't think after the ship nightmare, that on the bus ride to New Orleans, the bus would break down," Carnival passenger Jacob Combs said Friday, after the bus finally arrived in New Orleans.

But it did. About 45 minutes into the drive, passengers heard a loud popping sound, Combs said. The bus pulled to the side of Interstate 10, and waited about 45 minutes until a replacement bus arrived. Carnival officials confirmed the breakdown.

It was yet another indignity for some of the long-suffering passengers of the stricken ship, who endured five long days aboard the ship with little power and few toilet facilities after a fire Sunday knocked out propulsion and many other systems. Their return to port, already achingly slow, was delayed Thursday within sight of shore when a tow line broke.

The Triumph finally pulled into port in Mobile late Thursday night, passengers cheering and waving towels in celebration. The last passengers got off early Friday morning. Some stayed overnight in Mobile before boarding buses to New Orleans or Texas.

All were happy to be back on land. A few even kissed the pavement.

"It was horrible. Horrible," passenger Janie Esparza told reporters. "The bathroom facilities were horrible and we could not flush toilets. No electricity and our rooms were in total darkness. Honestly, think that this ship should have ever sailed out."

Other passengers said the cruise staff made things bearable.

"The situation we were in was a terrible situation, and there were a lot of frustrating and horrible things to deal with," said passenger Joy Dyer, wearing a Triumph bathrobe with "Float Trip 2013" scrawled on the back.

"But what we were in awe of the entire time was the crew that was completely unselfish," she said. "They served us with smiles, and served us in ways that are truly unthinkable, the things they had to do for us, yet they did it with smiles."

Passengers arriving Friday in New Orleans, Galveston and Houston, were able to pick up flights home or retrieve cars that some had left in Galveston, where the cruise originated.

Shipyard next for Triumph

The Triumph itself was being moved Friday to a shipyard at Mobile's port where it could be repaired. Carnival has canceled more than a dozen of the ship's planned voyages.

The Triumph was in the third day of a planned four-day cruise when a fire in an engine room left the vessel with no propulsion, listing to the side, drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents. It was carrying more than 3,200 passengers and nearly 1,100 crew members.

The power outages put many toilets out of order. Some commodes overflowed, splashing the floors with waste as the ship listed and sending urine and feces sloshing across floors and down hallways, passengers reported.

"It runs down the walls from one floor to the next. It's running out of somebody's bathroom out into the hallway all the way across," passenger Larry Poret said.

Other passengers reported long lines waiting for food, water shortages and widespread boredom. Many passengers took to sleeping in hallways or even outside to escape the odors and heat below decks.

Passengers passed the hours playing cards, walking the deck and going to see what was happening on other areas of the ship, Poret said.

They set up charging stations to help their fellow passengers juice up cell phones and other devices, he said.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill met reporters before the ship pulled in and said the company was sorry.

"We pride ourselves in providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case," he said.

The beleaguered CEO then went on the ship as passengers departed and delivered another apology.

But for some, like passenger Norma Reyes, it was too little too late.

"The hallways were toxic," said Reyes, who said she would never go on a Carnival cruise again. "Full of urine. It was horrible. If that ship caught on fire, and they had not contained it where would we be? Floating in the ocean or dead."

Others were more forgiving.

"They did a good job of managing expectations," said Brett Klausman. "The information that trickled out was probably well-thought-out to kind of keep people safe and calm."

The final trip home

Carnival promised an army of about 200 employees would take care of its passengers once they cleared customs.

The cruise line said it had reserved about 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 Galveston.

Carnival officials had initially planned to tow the ship to a Mexican port, but after Gulf currents pushed it farther north before tugboats could take control, and considering that 900 of the passengers do not have passports, the company decided to take the Carnival Triumph to Mobile instead, where it can be repaired.

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.

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.

Previous problems

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.

It's also 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.

After this ill-fated cruise, the Carnival 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.

Leonara Chavez and David Zambrano were on the Splendor when it lost power in 2010. They said watching coverage of the Triumph passengers' ordeal was "like looking in a mirror."

"It's like deja vu," Chavez said.

She said they took the free cruise offered by Carnival after the 2010 debacle. Despite walking the halls of the ship recounting things that had happened, she said they were determined to enjoy the trip.

But what happened aboard the Triumph, she said, has sealed their decision when it comes to cruising: They won't be going again.

-- CNN's Sandra Endo, Rich Phillips, 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.

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