MOBILE, Alabama: Passengers who finally escaped the disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph were checking into hotels early Friday for a hot shower, fresh-cooked food and sleep, or boarding buses for a long haul home after five numbing days at sea on a powerless ship.
The vacation ship carrying some 4,200 people docked late Thursday in Mobile after a painfully slow approach that took most of the day. Passengers raucously cheered after days of what they described as 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 ship. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore at about 9:15 p.m. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.
Less than four hours later, the last passenger had disembarked.
Some, like 56-year-old Deborah Knight of Houston, had no interest in boarding one of about 100 buses assembled to carry passengers to hotels in New Orleans or Texas. Her husband Seth drove in from Houston and they 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 gotten sick while on the ship.
Buses arrived in the pre-dawn darkness at a Hilton in New Orleans with wheelchairs to roll in passengers who were elderly or too fatigued to walk.
Many were tired and didn't want to talk. There were long lines to check into rooms. Some got emotional as they described the deplorable conditions of the ship.
"It was horrible, just horrible" said Maria Hernandez, 28, of Angleton, Texas, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about waking up to smoke in her lower-level room Sunday and the days of heat and stench to follow. She was on a "girls trip" with friends.
She said the group hauled mattresses to upper-level decks to escape the heat. As she pulled her luggage into the hotel, a flashlight around her neck, she managed a smile and even a giggle when asked to show her red "poo-poo bag" - distributed by the cruise line for collecting human waste.
This was only part of her journey to get home. Hernandez, like hundreds others, would get to enjoy a brief reprieve at the hotel before flying home later in the day.
"I just can't wait to be home," she said.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea.
The ill-fated ship lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles (240 kilometers) off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"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."
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment.
In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
"The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors," Hill wrote. "Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes."
She said "there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
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.