MOBILE, Ala. — A cruise ship disabled for five nightmarish days in the Gulf of Mexico finally docked late Thursday, with passengers raucously cheering the end to an odyssey some said was plagued by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken Carnival Triumph. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times on its final docking approach.
About an hour after the ship pulled up at 9:15 p.m. Central Standard Time, a steady stream of more than 3,000 passengers began making their way down the glass-enclosed gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling luggage.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, the worst part was not knowing how long passengers would have to endure the misery at sea.
"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her aboard. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back"
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "Happy V-Day" read one of the homemade signs made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and on the public address system as people disembarked.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
A few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal waved lights at the ship as it carefully made its way alongside.
Hundreds gawked at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked. Motorists on Interstate 10 stopped along the shoulder to watch the exodus of passengers.
It took six grueling hours for four tugboats to guide the ship up the 30-mile ship channel. Nearly 900 feet in length, the Triumph was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
It was expected to take up to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off, Carnival said.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground.
Carnival said all passengers had the option of a seven-hour bus ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Some also could stay in Mobile.
"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."
Up to 100 buses stood by to take the passengers to their next stop. Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
While the passengers are headed home, the Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment, said Carnival senior vice president of marketing Terry Thornton.
Earlier Thursday — four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico — the passengers and crew suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just when it was getting close to port.
As the vessel drew within cellphone range Thursday, passengers vented their anger.
Renee Shanar of Houston was on board with her husband, who she said has heart trouble. They were told they will be among the first to disembark, she said.
"I don't believe them; they've been lying to us from the beginning," Shanar said.
Disgusted by the foul air and heat on the lower decks, many passengers hauled mattresses and bed sheets onto the top deck and slept there, even staying put in a soaking rain. As the ship approached the coast, a slew of Carnival workers removed the bedding and took it downstairs.
"Today they cleaned the ship, they're serving better food, covering up basically, but at least they're making it more bearable," said Kalin Hill of Houston, who boarded the Triumph as part of a bachelorette party.
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
Some travel agents said cruise prices and bookings have not been affected by the disabled Carnival ship, but others in the industry say it's too early to tell.
Thelbert Lanier was waiting at the Mobile port for his wife, who texted him early Thursday.
"Room smells like an outhouse. Cold water only, toilets haven't work in 31/2 days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there," she said in the text message, which was viewed by the Associated Press. "It's 4:00 am. Can't sleep ... it's cold & I'm starting to get sick."
Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged 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 were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.