It was Sweet Home Alabama on Valentine’s Day for 3,143 passengers onboard the Carnival Triumph who debarked at the Alabama Cruise Terminal in Mobile, AL late Thursday. On Sunday the ship had an engine room fire and lost propulsion. Tugs pulled and pushed the vessel back into the Port of Mobile.
Clearly, guests were happy the five-day ordeal was over. Many said they rigged up charging stations onboard from computer electrical strips and were were thrilled to finally have cell phone service.
Many called CNN and other national media to talk about the difficult conditions onboard, including a lack of air conditioning, non- functioning toilets in many cabins, only emergency lighting and limited food options.
Ashore, many family and friends of those onboard had driven hundreds of miles and, at least one man from Indiana, more than 1,000 miles to greet them.
After being on a ship where conditions were tolerable at best, horrific at worst, the passengers are now, if not home, at least back on U.S. soil – where Carnival took them last night or made arrangements to take them today via motorcoach to the Port of Galveston, Houston or hotels along the Gulf Coast including New Orleans. Many will catch flights home today.
Families who had driven to the Port of Mobile to meet the ship also reported that Carnival had provided them with day rooms or overnight rooms as well as refreshments within the terminal.
It turned out to be a waiting game as even the ship’s scheduled return became a bit of an operational glitch Thursday. First, a tug boat broke down, then a tow line broke, and one guest had to be airlifted off the ship due to a medical emergency by U.S. Coast Guard; reportedly, that guest suffered stroke-like symptoms and was taken to a local hospital.
To help speed the debarkation process, U.S. Customs and Border Protection boarded Carnival Triumph several hours before docking to pre-clear guests so they could avoid any Customs and Immigration lines in the terminal.
Still, the whole process of getting guests off the ship took several hours, given that only one gangway was available for handling a cruise ship that's the size of Carnival Triumph.
As the ship finally reached its docking point in Mobile at about 9:15 p.m. local time, it blasted its horn. Four tugboats pulled and pushed the ship into place.
Passengers, some of whom had hung out signs made of sheets asking for help earlier in the week, cheered as the ship docked. Many were wearing jackets or Carnival bath robes, as the weather had turned much cooler from the warmth of the Riviera Maya.
After waiting an hour or so wait for lines to be set and the gangway to be placed, passengers began to disembark. The entire process took about four hours.
About 100 motorcoaches met the ship at Mobile, most whisking guests off into the night. Other guests headed off with friends and relatives to overnight in Mobile - preferring an immediate hot shower and meal.
Approximately 200 Carnival team members met the guests to handle arrangements. Also meeting them was Gerry Cahill, the line’s president and CEO, who apologized both 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,” said Cahill. “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.''
Earlier in the evening, Terry Thornton, the cruise line’s senior vice president of revenue management and deployment, had also addressed the media about logistics of the ship’s arrival and plans to assist guests after debarking.
Some guests expressed anger at the line and vowed to never take another cruise. Others were more forgiving, many experienced cruisers who indicated they'd sail again.
One woman told CNN that she had a balcony cabin and thus access to fresh air, and that she and her family were fine, but that conditions were far worse for those who had inside cabins without sun light or access to fresh air via a balcony door.
Nearly all guests effusively praised the efforts of the 1,086 Carnival crew members onboard, thanking them for doing a wonderful job under extremely difficult circumstances.
But the guests had more tough words for the Carnival corporate response; some felt communications with guests were poor or inconsistent. One guest said his neighbors had flights all set up but that he and others never received any information promised to help with arrangements after the ship docked.
That said, another guest said he felt they had done the best under the circumstances. One fact everyone can agree on: People said it was very fortunate no one was injured or killed in the fire itself.
Everything related to the fire, the line’s operational response, training, maintenance and so on will be addressed by Bahamian authorities, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as an investigation into the fire’s cause and the company’s response continues. That will likely take weeks and months.
Travel Agent will take a look at the impact of the Carnival Triumph situation at travel agencies around the country. If you are a travel agent and have any comments on how this situation is impacting your agency, cruise travel or travel on Carnival, email us at [email protected].