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Relatives descended on the port’s cruise ship terminal here Thursday morning at daybreak, prepared to greet the 4,200 passengers and crew members trapped aboard a Carnival cruise ship being slowly towed to harbor by several tug boats.
As of 8:20 a.m. CST, the Triumph still was about 25 miles from port, moving at a speed of 4 knots, according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Tippets.
A Carnival spokeswoman said Thursday morning that the ship was not expected to arrive until evening. That, local officials said, could pose a problem since ships are not supposed to be towed into the port after dark, potentially delaying the Carnival Triumph’s arrival overnight.
Joyce Oliva, a spokeswoman at Carnival headquarters in Miami, told the Los Angeles Times that an additional tugboat had been added to the three already towing the ship, but that progress was still slow.
“The operation is taking longer than we had anticipated, but based on current conditions, the ship is expected to be alongside the Mobile Cruise Terminal between 8 and 11 p.m. this evening,” Oliva said.
Such a late arrival could pose problems, said David Randel, president and chief executive of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“They can’t be towed in the dark. So if they’re not in port by dark, they’re going to have to spend another night on board,” he said.
Randel said a local pilot and customs officials boarded the ship at about 5 a.m. Central time, when it was about 100 miles offshore. Passengers will be processed by customs before they leave the ship, speeding the process of reuniting with loved ones in the cruise terminal, he said. At least 100 relatives had already arrived to greet passengers, he said.
One family who drove from Indianapolis and Lake Charles, La., had a banner made and draped it across the front of the van where they were waiting, “Thank God it’s over! We love u Julie, Robin, Brianna, Brooklyn and Julianna!”
Among the first to arrive Thursday was Chuck Dorsett, 41, of Sweeny, Texas, who drove his truck all night to come rescue his wife, Brandi Dorsett, after she called him Monday from the ship, desperate. The mother of five, who runs a pet-grooming business, had boarded the four-day cruise to Mexico’s Yucatan last Thursday in Galveston with some girlfriends hoping to relax. Instead, she said they were stranded on a ship where the toilets had stopped working, making do with onion and cucumber sandwiches.
“After hearing my wife break down like that, that made my mind up,” Dorsett, a mechanical technician for Dow chemical, told the Times as he stood shivering in a sweatshirt outside the port.
He and a friend whose wife was also aboard the cruise brought Valentine’s Day gifts and came early to find parking and avoid a melee when the ship’s 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew disembark.
“There’s no way you’re going to get 3,000 people off there smooth as pie. It’s going to be crazy,” Dorsett said as he stood in a parking lot overtaken by television satellite trucks. A dozen cameras were set up nearby _ all trained on the port. A charter bus was pulling up and a green glassed-in gangway had already been lowered where the ship is expected to dock.
Relatives waiting at the port Thursday described passengers as a mix of adults and children, singles and couples, many cruising for a special occasion. One passenger was celebrating her 50th birthday. A 12-year-old girl went with her father as a reward, another with her cousin who had just graduated. A nurse was on her first cruise with her boss, attending a medical seminar.
The nurse, Nicole Enjuofor, 35, of Dallas, called her mother Thursday morning from her cellphone aboard the ship and said conditions remained dire.
“They do have water, but it’s brown,” said her mother, Nellie Betts, who drove down to Mobile with her husband from Tupelo, Miss., Thursday morning. “The smell is horrible. She says water is everywhere on the ship.”
Enjuofor, who has a 13-year-old daughter at home, told her mother that passengers were trying to escape the stench, staying outside.
“She’s feeling some relief knowing she’s getting close to home. It’s her first time on a ship _ first time and last time,” Betts said.
Betts and others were frustrated with the wait.
“I just don’t understand why it has taken so long to get them home,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare.”
The cruise was cut short when a fire erupted Sunday morning in the ship’s engine room as the Triumph cruised about 150 miles off the Yucatan coast. The cause is still unknown _ U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials were waiting in Mobile to board the shop once it lands and investigate.
The fire left the ship without electricity, running on generators with limited water. Passengers used cellphones to call and text home, reporting Monday that they were sleeping in hallways, urinating in bags and waiting hours in line for limited food.
By Tuesday, many relatives reported that passengers’ phones appeared to be dead, with their calls going straight to voicemail.
Rusty Adkins, 41, a traveling evangelical minister from Indianapolis, drove the van with the banner to pick up his 18 year-old daughter, Brianna Adkins. He said Carnival officials had discouraged his family from making the trip, saying they would provide buses, hotels and charter flights to get passengers back home _ in addition to refunds, cruise credit and $500 each _ but Adkins insisted.
“We want to get them off that boat as soon as possible. If there was a way to get them off that boat now, we would,” he said. “What we don’t understand is why they don’t have some kind of back-up plan for this type of emergency. I mean _ no food?”
Some have spent the past few days searching for news and venting on a Facebook page set up by Lani Corbett, whose daughter, Shannon Dobbs, is on the Triumph with a group of co-workers.
Lindsie Yearsin wrote that her mother was on the Triumph with friends celebrating their 50th birthdays.
“I cannot wait for her to be home I hate hearing the conditions that she is having to go through,” Yearsin wrote.
Scott Abraham was also among those frustrated by the lack of news.
“My daughter and granddaughter are on that ship and I am wondering if they are being exposed to raw sewage. It can’t be healthy. Hit Google and all you get are the same handful of photos and the same handful of news feeds. Where are the photos?” he wrote, “The passengers are going to spill the beans when they get back.”
Others concerned about the lack of updates from the ship and unwilling to wait for news drove to the port Thursday morning, but remained concerned as they waited for the ship to appear.
Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, who was expected to hold a briefing at the port at 10:30 a.m. Central time to discuss the ship’s arrival. Randel said he plans to give a briefing about an hour later.
Carnival was going to have the disabled ship towed to the Mexican port of Progreso, but strong winds pushed them 90 miles north. Officials decided to tow the ship instead to Mobile, making it easier for passengers traveling without passports to get home.
Carnival officials also canceled the ship’s next 14 voyages, issuing passengers a refund and a discount on future cruises.
The incident comes more than two years after another Carnival ship, the Splendor, was stranded at sea by a fire in the engine room and returned to port in San Diego four days later. The ship was sidelined for more than three months for repairs. It is not clear how long the Triumph will remain in Mobile once it arrives, if repairs will be done at the local shipyard or elsewhere, according to Mobile Mayor Sam Jones.
On the Carnival Triumph Facebook page, Pamela Robinson of Gilroy, Calif., recalled her experience surviving the Splendor.
“What an awful cruise that was. I must say the crew was fantastic with what little they had to work with, carrying people in wheelchairs up and down the stairs etc. no water, no toilets and bad food yuck,” she wrote. “Hang in there everyone soon you will be home and Carnival will treat you very well as they did us.”
She added a note to Carnival: “You better check your engines, you’re getting a bad reputation!”