MOBILE, Ala. - After days stranded in the Gulf of Mexico in conditions some have described as dismal, most passengers aboard the disabled Carnival Triumph can look forward to an hours-long bus ride Thursday after they reach dry land.
The company announced its plan for passengers late Wednesday as the Triumph was being towed to a port in Mobile, Ala., with more than 4,000 people on board, some of whom have complained to relatives that they have limited access to food and bathrooms.
But passengers' stay in Alabama will be short. Carnival said in a statement late Wednesday that passengers were being given the option of boarding buses directly to Galveston, Texas, or Houston - a roughly seven-hour drive - or spending the night in a hotel in New Orleans, where the company said it booked 1,500 rooms. Those staying in New Orleans will be flown Friday to Houston. Carnival said it will cover all the transportation costs.
Speaking by phone to NBC's "Today" show Thursday morning, passenger Jamie Baker said conditions on the ship were "extremely terrible." There has been no electricity and few working toilets, she said.
Baker also described having to use plastic bags to go to the bathroom and wait in line for hours to get food and once saw a woman pass out while in line.
"It's just a nightmare," she said.
Baker said she and her friends slept with their life vests one night because the ship was listing and they feared it would tip over.
Vivian Tilley, whose sister, Renee Shanar, is on the ship, said Shanar, of Houston, told her the cabins were hot and smelled like smoke from the engine fire, forcing passengers to stay on the deck. She also said people were getting sick.
The company has disputed the accounts of passengers who describe the ship as filthy, saying employees are doing everything to ensure people are comfortable.
Robert Giordano, whose 33-year-old wife Shannon is aboard the cruise liner with a group of friends of hers from Edmond, Okla., said one of the most frustrating parts of the ordeal for him has been the lack of information coming from Carnival. As of midday Wednesday, the only communication he had with the company was through a recorded phone call with bits of information - and he only had three such telephone calls, he said.
"Carnival has not let us know about anything that's going on," Giordano said.
Meanwhile, officials in Mobile were preparing a cruise terminal that has not been used for a year to help passengers go through customs after their ordeal. The Triumph is expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones questioned the plan to bus passengers to other cities late Wednesday, saying the city has more than enough hotel rooms to accommodate passengers and its two airports are near the cruise terminal.
"We raised the issue that it would be a lot easier to take a five-minute bus ride than a two-hour bus ride" to New Orleans, Jones said. Jones said Carnival employees will be staying in Mobile, adding he was not told of the company's reasoning for putting passengers on extended bus rides after their experience at sea.
"I don't know if the passengers even know that," Jones said.
Earlier Wednesday, Carnival Cruise Lines canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged that the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the cause.
"We know it has been a longer journey back than we anticipated at the beginning of the week under very challenging circumstances," Carnival President and CEO Gary Cahill said. "We are very sorry for what our guests have had to endure."
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen acknowledged the Triumph's recent mechanical woes, explaining that there was an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2.
Testing of the repaired part was successful and "there is no evidence at this time of any relationship between this previous issue and the fire that occurred on Feb. 10."
Debbi Smedley, a passenger on a recent Triumph cruise, said the ship had trouble Jan. 28 as it was preparing to leave Galveston. Hours before the scheduled departure time, she received an email from Carnival stating the vessel would leave late because of a propulsion problem. Passengers were asked to arrive at the port at 2 p.m., two hours later than originally scheduled.
The ship did not sail until after 8 p.m., she said.
"My mother is a cruise travel agent so this is not my first rodeo. I have sailed many, many cruises, many, many cruise lines. This was, by far, I have to say, the worst," said Smedley, of Plano, Texas.
Communication with passengers on the Triumph has been limited to brief windows when other cruise ships with working cellular towers have rendezvoused to deliver supplies, but some relatives have reported being told of uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.
Giordano said he last spoke to his wife, Shannon, on Monday. She told him she waited in line for three hours to get a hot dog and that conditions on the ship were terrible.
"They're having to urinate in the shower. They've been passed out plastic bags to go to the bathroom," Giordano said. "There was fecal matter all over the floor."
Even more distressing, Giordano said, has been the lack of information he has been able to get from Carnival, a complaint shared by Tilley, of San Diego.
Carnival, she said, has not told families what hotel passengers will be put in or provided precise information about when they will arrive in Mobile. And that came after the cruise line switched the ship's towing destination from Progreso, Mexico, to Mobile.
Passengers are supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
Once docked, the ship will be idle through April. In addition to the dozen voyages canceled Wednesday, two other cruises were called off shortly after Sunday's fire.
Jay Herring, a former senior officer with Carnival Cruise Lines who worked on the Triumph from 2002 to 2004, said the ship was not problematic when he was on it.
The Triumph takes five generators - with one on backup - to power the ship, and 80 percent of that energy is needed to simply push the massive vessel through the water, Herring said.
Each of those generators is the size of a bus, so it's unrealistic to think that the ship could have enough backup power on board to run services when the engines die, Herring added.
"It's one of their bigger ships. It's certainly on the top end of Carnival's fleet," he said of the Triumph. "There are so many moving parts and things that can go wrong."