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Thousands of relieved passengers poured ashore from a stinking cruise ship on Friday after five days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with overflowing toilets and stench filled cabins.
Exhausted passengers lined the ship's decks, waving towels and flashlights, cheering and singing Sweet Home Alabama as tug boats pulled the stricken Carnival Triumph into the port of Mobile, Alabama.
Passenger Kendall Jenkins kisses the ground after stepping off the cruise ship Triumph at the Alabama Cruise terminal in Mobile, Alabama, on Thursday. The ship arrived at the port, ending a nightmarish ocean voyage for some 4,000 desperate passengers and crew members after it lost power over the weekend. Dan Anderson / Agence France-Presse
Some travelers kissed the ground when they walked off, others disembarked wearing the ship's white bath robes, part souvenir and part protection against a chilly night.
With only one working elevator, it took several hours to get the more than 4,200 people off the ship, Carnival Corp said. Passengers were greeted dockside with warm food, blankets and cell phones to call family and friends.
About 100 buses waited to carry passengers on a seven-hour bus ride to Galveston, Texas, while other buses departed for shorter rides to New Orleans, as well as hotels in Mobile.
The end of the saga, documented live on United States cable news stations, was another public relations disaster for cruise giant Carnival Corp. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury liner grounded off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.
Carnival officials said the Triumph, which entered service in 1999, would be towed to a Mobile repair facility for damage assessment.
The 272-meter vessel was returning to Galveston from Cozumel, Mexico, on the third day of a four-day cruise when an engine-room fire knocked out power and plumbing across most of the ship on Sunday.
Passengers described a gut-wrenching stench on parts of the ship and complained to relatives and media by cell phone that toilets and drainpipes overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in raw sewage.
"The stench was awful," said Robin Chandler, a 50-year-old from Dallas who spent her birthday on the ship. "A lot of people were crying and freaking out."
Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company, praised the ship's crew.
"Just imagine the filth," said Combs, 30. "People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up. They were constantly cleaning," he said.
Facing criticism over the company's response, Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill boarded the ship to personally apologize to passengers.
"I know the conditions on board were very poor," he told reporters, sounding shaken in a brief media appearance before he boarded the ship. "I know it was difficult. I want to apologize for subjecting our guests to that," he said.
"We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience and clearly we failed in this particular case," Cahill added.
Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival, the ship left Galveston a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. It was supposed to return on Monday.
Some passengers said conditions deteriorated rapidly on the Triumph earlier in the week, saying people were getting sick and passengers had been told to use plastic "biohazard" bags as makeshift toilets.
"It wasn't a vacation anymore it was like survival mode. Eat what you can. Snack when you can. It was awful," said passenger Tammy Garcia.
Smoke from the engine fire was so thick that passengers on the lower decks in the rear of the ship had to be permanently evacuated and slept the rest of the voyage on the decks.