(CBS News) Four thousand people who have been adrift at sea for four days are finally nearing shore Thursday night. This evening, the Carnival cruise ship named Triumph is being towed into Mobile Bay, Ala., and is expected to dock by midnight.
She left Galveston, Texas, a week ago, loaded with her maximum 3,143 passengers and crew of 1,100. The brochure described a four-day cruise in the Caribbean, but an engine room fire left her adrift and powerless.
All aboard have suffered in squalid conditions, stranded as Carnival slowly brought the ship in.
When CBS News flew over the Carnival Triumph, it was within sight of shore -- but still seven hours away from the dock.
From up there we could see people waving, some with signs that appear to be made out of bed sheets. One said "SOS" -- save our ship -- but at this point it's not the ship that needs saving, it's the passengers.
The ship has been without power since an engine room fire five days ago. CBS News reached passenger Jacob Combs on the phone.
"The really bad part is there was no running water and toilets for almost the first 30 hours," Combs said. "Once they finally did get running water, the toilets only worked in certain places. I would say it's the worst smell imaginable."
Emailed photos (above) reveal squalid conditions. Many passengers used red plastic bags as toilets. Hundreds slept in hallways or topside to escape the foul and stagnate air below deck.
Carnival CEO Jerry Cahill insists passengers were never at risk. But 22-year old Leslie Mayberry disagreed.
"It was leaning to one side it was literally like walking up hill whenever the boat was leaning," she said. "I mean it was very scary," Mayberry said. "I mean a lot of people thought it was going to tip over and sink. And then you look out on the deck and you see the ocean and there is no one, you are just by yourself and you are so alone, even though you are around 3,000 other people on this boat."
The towline pulling the 14-story tall ship snapped, delaying Thursday's operation. It was re-attached, but it will be nightfall before the ship arrives at the terminal. Nellie Betts came from Tupelo, Miss., to meet her daughter.
"There's no reason why those people should be out there as long as they have. Why? I want to understand why," she said. "What is taking them so long to get them out?"
Once the ship arrives at the terminal, Carnival plans to put most of those passengers on a two-hour bus rid to New Orleans or even to Galveston, Texas, but some already are saying, "no thanks" - they have relatives picking them up in Mobile so they can go straight home.