North Texans share details of life aboard crippled cruise ship

Posted Friday, Feb. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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James Turk had planned a memorable vacation this year for his brother and sister -- their first cruise.

But the Arlington siblings, who boarded the Carnival Triumph in Galveston earlier this month, got more than they bargained for after a fire in the ship's engine room left the vessel powerless and drifting before being towed -- over the course of several days -- to ultimately dock in Alabama.

"It was definitely crazy," said Turk, a 42-year-old coach at the Madfrog Volleyball Club in Dallas. "It was probably the most adventurous trip I'll ever be on.

"I don't think there will ever be a situation that can compare to this."

That may be an understatement.

Turk and other North Texans were among the thousands of passengers on this ill-fated cruise ship that lost power after the fire Sunday morning, rendering everything from air conditioning to refrigerators to toilets unusable for days at a time.

Some passengers slept on deck, used showers and plastic bags as toilets and couldn't avoid the overwhelming odors of smoke, sewage and diesel fuel.

"It was nauseating," said Heather Lawley, a 40-year-old Garland travel agent at Step by Step Travel who sells Carnival cruises. "You couldn't sleep at night. It smelled like port-a-pots were dumped everywhere. It was nasty, pretty disgusting."

The cruise that was to run from Feb. 7-11 ended late Thursday night, after a tugboat finally pulled it to a dock in Mobile, Ala.

By Friday, exhausted North Texas travelers who had been stuck on the ship were finally making their way home, by car or plane.

"I am very ready to get home," Lawley said.

Passengers on the Triumph enjoyed the first three days of the cruise, which included an excursion in Cozumel.

On the fourth day, around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, they awoke to the sound of alarms sounding and the captain's voice on the loud speaker.

Not knowing what was going on, Lawley looked into the hallway, where she found other people also peeking out of their rooms. Then they opened the balcony doors in her stateroom on Deck 7 to look outside.

"I saw smoke and I screamed, 'Fire,'" she said. "I didn't want to panic, but your life flashes before your eyes. Your blood pressure goes up a little bit, your heart beats a little harder.

"And you wait for instructions."

From the second deck, Turk smelled the smoke and when he went up to a higher level, he saw it billowing out of the ship.

Then the power went out.

Although emergency generators appeared to provide periodic service in some areas of the cruise liner, they couldn't power the entire ship, or the kitchen -- or the toilets.

Passengers waiting for news about the condition of the boat continued to use the toilets, learning too late that they wouldn't flush or quickly stopped up.

"The smell was getting bad," Turk said. "That's when they came on the loudspeakers and said it was starting to get unsanitary. They told us if you go No. 1, use the shower. If you do No. 2, you have to use trash bags."

As the cruise liner drifted along in the Gulf of Mexico, passengers couldn't use their cellphones or laptops because the ship's cell tower provided no reception. Then high winds and choppy waves left the boat listing, or leaning, as much as what felt like a 25-degree angle, some passengers said.

"It freaked a lot of people out because you felt the boat was going to tip over," Turk said. "But the captain came on and said there's nothing to worry about ... and that's what happens with the wind."

The listing was not only unsettling, but it also caused sewage backups in toilets and pipes to overflow into bathrooms, on carpets and even leak down some walls.

The stench and heat in some cabins led many passengers to take the mattresses out of their rooms and put them in any open deck space they could find. Many tied sheets from railings to the ship, to provide a tent-like barrier from the sun during the day and from the wind at night.

They called it tent city.

After a couple of days, as the ship moved away from Mexico, the weather became cooler and many people moved their mattresses into areas such as the dinning room.

Signs of help

Passengers charged their cellphones and laptops from a variety of power strips plugged into outlets throughout the ship, but they still couldn't get cell connection in the middle of nowhere. They did learn that Carnival had notified their families, telling them about the ship's delay.

Over the next four days, other Carnival ships approached the Triumph -- as it drifted and was pulled by tug boat -- to deliver food supplies.

As those ships came close, Triumph passengers used the visiting ships' cell signals to call home or use the Internet, sharing pictures and stories about their unbelievable cruise experience.

"We felt like zoo animals, with people looking at us," Lawley said.

Helicopters flew overhead and delivered food and medical supplies. And the Coast Guard arrived, which gave many passengers a big sense of relief.

"People were cheering when they got there," Turk said.

Cruise ships are known for lavish meals and constant food service, but meals aboard the Triumph after the fire were mostly sandwiches -- sometimes salmon sandwiches -- and fruit. Depending on the food deliveries, chips might have been included at some meals.

But fearful that more supplies might not be delivered, some people began stockpiling food for themselves.

"We didn't know how many ships would be able to come and bring us food," Lawley said. "There was a run on the buffet. It was crazy, with people hoarding food."

But eventually, as cooks onboard were able to fire up the grill and provide some hot food, passengers realized they needed to work together. They bonded, helped each other and held prayer groups.

"We had to have a huge sense of community," Lawley said.

And the staff, several passengers said, was top notch -- no matter what the conditions.

"The crew has been incredible. It's not their fault," Turk said.

As rescue seemed close on the horizon, and the tugboat slowly pulled the cruise liner closer toward shore, cruise ship workers put on variety, comedy and trivia shows, musicians played music, and movies were played in certain rooms where limited power was available.

Each day, some people found something encouraging to keep their spirits up -- the arrival of the Coast Guard, tug boats connecting to pull the ship, even helicopters arriving to bring supplies. "Each day felt better because it felt like we were getting closer to home," Turk said.

When they finally did dock in Alabama, passengers were given choices on how to get home.

They could ride chartered buses to Galveston or Houston, where their cars were parked, or take a shorter bus ride to New Orleans, stay the night at a hotel and fly back to Texas Friday.

Turk, who needed to catch a Friday night flight to St. Louis for work, rode the bus to Galveston, arriving about 8 a.m. Friday morning.

He said he was not on the bus that was rumored to have broken down in route. "No, thank God," he said. "Everybody is exhausted and just wants to get home."

Lawley went to New Orleans, spent the night and caught a flight home, arriving at DFW around noon Friday. Her husband asked friends to go to Galveston to pick up her car and bring it home.

All the passengers were believed to have reached their destinations by at least late Friday. Carnival officials have said passengers will receive a full refund, $500 and discounts on future cruises.

To no one's surprise, the first lawsuit was filed Friday seeking damages. Texas resident Cassie Terry sued Carnival Corp. on Friday in Miami federal court. The suit seeks unspecified damages, saying Terry feared for her life or that she might suffer serious injury or illness because of the presence of raw sewage and spoiled food.

As a travel agent, Lawley said, she knows she needs to take another cruise, especially since cruises are popular travel options for North Texans.

But first, she said she wants more details about what happened on her cruise.

And Turk?

He said he wouldn't have any problem taking another cruise.

"Everybody can agree we will never forget this type of situation," he said. "This was a bad cruise. The thing is, though, it's rare.

"There are people who take 40 to 50 cruises who say this never happens. It wouldn't stop me from going on another one."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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