Passengers leave cruise ship telling tales of woe

Passengers from the cruise ship Carnival Triumph are questioned by reporters after they disembarked in Mobile, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The ship with more than 4,200 passengers and crew members has been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire.
AP Photo/John David Mercer

Last Updated 7:36 a.m. ET

MOBILE, Ala. The passengers of the Carnival cruise ship Triumph began the process of getting back to normal early Friday, checking into hotels for a shower, hot meal and good night's sleep or boarding buses bound for other cities after five numbing days at sea on a powerless ship disabled by an engine-room fire.

The cruise ship carrying some 4,200 people finally docked late Thursday in Mobile, as passengers raucously cheered the end to an ocean odyssey they say was marked by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.

"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship.

The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore at about 9:15 p.m. CST. Some passengers gave a thumbs-up sign, and flashes from cameras and cell phones lit the night.

Nearly four hours later, the last passenger had disembarked.

Some, like 56-year-old Deborah Knight of Houston, had no interest in boarding one of about 100 buses assembled to carry passengers to hotels in New Orleans or Texas. Her husband, Seth, drove in from Houston and they checked into a downtown Mobile hotel.

"I want a hot shower and a daggum Whataburger," said Knight, who was wearing a bathrobe over her clothes as her bags were unloaded from her husband's pickup truck. She said she was afraid to eat the food on board and had gotten sick while on the ship.

To add insult to injury, at least one of the chartered buses became stranded on the way to New Orleans, correspondent Anna Werner told "CBS This Morning." Passenger Jacob Combs called CBS News en route to say his bus was sitting by the side of the road, as he waited for yet one more rescue.

As buses arrived in the pre-dawn darkness at the Hilton in New Orleans, paramedics were on the scene with wheelchairs to roll in passengers who were elderly or too fatigued to walk.

Many were tired and didn't want to talk. There were long lines to check into rooms. Some got emotional as they described the deplorable conditions of the ship.

"It was horrible, just horrible" said Maria Hernandez, 28, of Angleton, Texas, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about waking up to smoke in her lower-level room Sunday, and the days of heat and stench to follow. She was on a "girls trip" with friends.

She said the group hauled mattresses to upper-level decks to escape the heat. As she pulled her luggage into the hotel, a flashlight around her neck, she managed a smile and even a giggle when asked to show her red "poo-poo bag" -- distributed by the cruise line for collecting human waste.

This was only part of her journey to get home. Hernandez, like hundreds of others, would get to enjoy a brief reprieve at the hotel before flying home later in the day.

"I just can't wait to be home," she said.

It wasn't long after the ship pulled into the Port of Mobile that passengers began streaming down the gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling carry-on luggage. One man gave the thumbs-up.

An ambulance pulled up to a gate and pulled away, lights flashing.

Carnival had said it would take up to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off. It took closer to four.

"All guests have now disembarked the Carnival Triumph," Carnival tweeted.

Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged 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.

Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.

In texts and flitting cell phone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground.

Passenger Jacob Combs told CBS News via phone: "The really bad part is there was no running water and toilets for almost the first 30 hours. 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 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. "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."

For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, not knowing how long passengers had to endure their time aboard was the worst part.

"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her aboard to weather the cold nights. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back."

As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "Happy V-Day" read one of the homemade signs made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."