MOBILE, Ala - A cruise ship disabled for five nightmarish days in the Gulf of Mexico finally docked with more than 4,000 people aboard late Thursday, passengers raucously cheering the end to an odyssey they say was marked 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 Triumph. Some passenger gave thumbs-up signs, and flashes from cameras lit the night.
About an hour after the ship pulled up at 9:15 p.m., a steady stream of passengers began making their way down the glass-enclosed gangway.
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" One of the homemade signs said starkly, "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked. Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
It would take up to five hours for all passengers to disembark, said Terry Thornton, Carnival senior vice president of marketing.
In texts and cellphone calls, the passengers described miserable conditions at sea, many eager to walk on solid ground. But for the moment, they waved towels at the throng at dockside.
Carnival said they 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 daughter, Kalin Christine, 30, was on the cruise. "If I hit land in Mobile, you'd have a hard time getting me on a bus."
Up to 100 buses were standing 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 about 150 miles 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.
"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 were headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment, Thornton said.
Earlier Thursday - four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled by the fire - the 4,200 passengers and crew members suffered another setback with towline problems 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 would 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 bedsheets 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.
In a text message, though, she 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 (deck) 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."
Carnival disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.