MOBILE, Ala. – 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 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.
The ship was in sight of the Alabama shore about midday, but still had hours before it was docked.
TV images from CNN showed passengers walking around the ship's deck, some of them waving to the helicopters flying above. People in boats, presumably officials from Carnival, the Coast Guard and Customs also had boarded the ship.
On board, passengers described people using plastic bags to go to the bathroom and waiting for hours to get food.
The ship left Galveston for a four-day cruise last Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. It was about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula when 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.
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.
Once docked, the ship will be idle through April.
Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Mobile contributed to this report.