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’Really primitive stuff’: Safely ashore, cruise passengers tell of hoarding, filth and fright

Image: Carnival Triumph
Residents sit on the shore and watch as the cruise ship Carnival Triumph is visible near Dauphin Island, Ala., on Thursday.Dave Martin / AP

Weary and miserable, sickened by the stench of sewage, the last of more than 3,000 passengers walked off a hobbled cruise ship Friday after tugboats lugged it to the Alabama shore and finally brought an end to a five-day floating nightmare.

As they filed off the Carnival Triumph, people kissed loved ones and the ground beneath them. They gobbled down fresh food, took hot showers and gave thanks for the simple pleasures of power and functional plumbing.

The last passenger disembarked just before 2 a.m.

Safely ashore, the passengers told horror stories of a ship with corridors reeking of sewage, long lines for meals and people sleeping on deck to get out of the sweltering interior of the vessel. One person said it smelled like a zoo. Clark Jones of Dallas recalled seeing people hoard food and protect their turf on the ship.

“It’s really primitive stuff,” he said.

It took only hours for the first lawsuit to be filed, by a Texas woman who claimed in federal court that she suffered physical and emotional harm because Carnival failed to provide a seaworthy vessel and sanitary conditions, Reuters reported. Other lawsuits were expected.

Julie Billings told NBC News that the experience “was like post-natural disaster, but stuck on a boat with 3,200 other people, and those poor workers trying to clean up after everyone and deal with everyone freaking out.”

The ship, three football fields long, lost power Sunday after a fire in the engine room and had to be towed to land. It was tugged first toward Mexico, then toward Mobile, Ala., after strong wind in the Gulf of Mexico carried it north.

'Tempers started flying'
On the last day of the rescue, the agony was prolonged by a snapped cable connecting the Triumph to one of four tugboats, to say nothing of the logistical challenge of easing the 100,000-ton behemoth safely into port when it had no power to steer itself.

Carnival had workers in place to provide passengers with warm food, blankets, phones and refreshments. Adding yet another complication, a bus carrying passengers from the Triumph to New Orleans, where they were to board charter flights home, broke down on Friday, and passengers had to wait for another bus to pick them up.

Other buses from Mobile began arriving Friday morning in Galveston, Texas, the ship’s point of departure.

Passengers generally had praise for the crew. Janie Baker told MSNBC that they were “fantastic,” but that by the final night “people’s tempers started flying.” She described one incident in which a passenger tried to disrupt a movie and was taken away by the crew.

“Going to the bathroom in plastic bags and then handing it to another human being to throw it away — that is just the most embarrassing thing,” another passenger, Jayme Lamm, told MSNBC.

As they neared home, some people aboard chanted, “Let me off, let me off!” They used bedsheets to make giant signs, visible from news helicopters hovering around the boat, that said, “SOS!” or “Sweet Home Alabama!”

“The ship’s afloat, so is the sewage,” another said.

Slideshow: Passengers share photos of life on crippled Carnival Triumph

The government is investigating the engine-room fire. Carnival, which has suspended the Triumph through mid-April, will give $500 to each passenger from the Triumph, plus reimbursement for the cruise and a free future cruise. Carnival also said Friday that passengers will be reimbursed for what they bought on the ship, not counting artwork and purchases in the casino and gift shop.

It was not clear how many would take the company up on the free cruise.

“Not with Carnival,” Billings said, asked on TODAY whether she would take a cruise again. “Not yet.”

Carnival CEO: 'We failed'

As the ship docked, Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Gerry Cahill spoke to the media — with some passengers cheering in the background — and apologized for the ordeal.

“I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation,” he said. “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,” he added.

As for the crew, Terry Thornton, the company’s senior vice president, said that they would have the option of staying on the ship or moving to a hotel.

After the power went out and toilets stopped working, cruise staff instructed people to urinate into the showers and put fecal matter into plastic bags, which were collected by stewards and put into giant trash bags, passenger Shannon Caceres told NBC News.

Caceres, who lives in Flower Mound, Texas, described reports of people looting rooms and taking laptops, phones and cameras.

Two nights into the cruise, Caceres said that the crew decided to serve alcohol, which led to “people screaming obscenities in the hallways, wasted.” The crew then stopped serving alcohol again.

Carnival had disputed passenger accounts before the ship reached land, but the photos, not to mention the relief on passengers’ faces, seemed to confirm their accounts. The company had confirmed that fewer than two dozen public toilets were working.

The Triumph had 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew on board. With all the passengers off, the ship was being moved out of its dock Friday and to a nearby shipyard.