By Mark Morgenstein. Ben Brumfield and Mike Pearson
(CNN) — Kim McKerreghan stood in the dark at dockside in the Port of Mobile early Wednesday, worried sick about her 10-year-old daughter and her ex-husband, both passengers on the distressed cruise ship being towed there.
Her daughter, Allie Taylor, called her in a panic Sunday after a fire broke out in the Carnival Triumph’s engine room.
Automatic sprinklers extinguished the blaze but the flames paralyzed the ship’s propulsion system, leaving it temporarily marooned in the Gulf of Mexico, subject to the whims of wind and sea currents.
“Mommy, it’s so scary,” McKerreghan said her daughter told her. “I want to come home.” McKerreghan fought back tears as she recalled the conversation. “Just come get me,” her daughter begged her.
The cell phone signal was bad, and they ended the call, leaving the mother from Lufkin, Texas, feeling helpless. “I wanted to have a meltdown,” McKerreghan said. “I’m going to have that moment here,” she told CNN’s Victor Blackwell at the Alabama port.
Two tug boats are dragging the nearly 900-foot, 14-story Triumph at a jogger’s pace to the harbor, where Carnival hopes to return 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members to freedom on Thursday, the cruise line said.
The convoy was approximately 160 nautical miles from port around 9 a.m. Wednesday, on track to arrive at the Mobile dock approximately between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday, according to an official briefed on plans for the recovery of the ship.
The Triumph is expected to navigate the “safety fairway,” or the corridor into Mobile Bay, late Wednesday night, bringing it, around 8 a.m. Thursday, to the point where a pilot from the Port of Mobile will board the ship and guide it to dock, the same official told CNN.
Mobile Infirmary Health Services has offered to set up a triage unit at the port, in case any debarking passengers need medical assistance, Alabama Cruise Terminal General Manager Sheila Gurganus said Tuesday.
Then, after what Gurganus predicted would be “easy access out the door of customs with your luggage,” Carnival will try to take care of its passengers on land.
The cruise line has reserved more than 1,500 hotel rooms in Mobile and New Orleans, about a two-hour drive away, for Thursday night. In addition, Carnival has arranged for more than 20 chartered flights on Friday to ferry the stranded vacationers to Houston, the closest major city to the cruise’s origination point, Carnival President Gerald Cahill has said.
The cruise ship left Galveston, Texas, for a Caribbean tour last week and was scheduled to arrive back there Monday.
That day, McKerreghan’s ex-husband, stranded at sea, phoned to say the sanitary situation had already begun to deteriorate on board the Triumph.
“He said that the conditions have gotten so bad that they’re asking them to use the restroom in bags, and they were eating onion sandwiches,” McKerreghan said.
The call was the last she has heard from them.
Much of the ship’s electrical power went down in the fire, causing widespread malfunctions, including taking out sanitary systems.
Passengers have reported sewage sloshing around in hallways, flooded rooms and trouble getting enough to eat.
“It’s disgusting. It’s the worst thing ever,” passenger Ann Barlow told CNN.
“From what I understand, they’re walking around in a lot of urine and fecal matter, and the sewers are backing up,” McKerreghan said. Her doctor gave her antibiotics to give her daughter as soon as she gets on land. A checkup will follow as soon as possible.
Passenger Jet Hilton from Crawfordsville, Indiana, has relied on her sense of humor to get through the ordeal, her sister Jennifer Stanfield told CNN affiliate WTHR.
Four thousand people on a stranded ship can’t flush, Hilton jokingly messaged Stanfield to vent about the stench on board.
Carnival has said that most of the Triumph’s 23 public restrooms and some others are working. But with the large number of people on board, they will at least have to stand in line.
Hilton stood in line for three hours waiting for something to eat, her sister said.
“People ahead of her hoarded food,” Stanfield said. “By the time she got up there, all she could get was a hamburger and some waters.”
Hilton and 20 of her girlfriends booked the cruise to celebrate one of their birthdays.
She is a former cheerleader, Stanfield said, and is doing what she can to keep her group’s spirits up.
The fire also cut power to air conditioning, and the ship is very hot, Stanfield said. Passengers are flocking to the deck for fresher, cooler air.
The crew has higher priorities to fulfill than cooling cabins with what electricity the ship does have.
“They have to make sure there’s adequate power to keep the ship from sinking or burning further,” said Dr. Richard Burke from the University of New York Maritime College.
The fire also knocked out the ship’s stabilization system, causing it to list, Burke said.
“There’s time when the ship is leaning pretty hard, and you’re worried you’ll flip,” said passenger Donna Gutzman.
Bad luck before
The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.
In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship’s passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.
The cruise company apologized for the current conditions on board the Triumph and said it was using its full resources to help the passengers.
“No one here at Carnival is happy about conditions on board the ship,” said Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill Tuesday. “We are very sorry about what is taking place.”
Passengers will get a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise, Carnival said.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.
McKerreghan drove over from Texas together with a friend, Mary Poret, whose 12-year-old daughter Rebekah is on board, with Poret’s ex-husband.
Poret also received a frightening call from her daughter after the fire and feared they may never see each other again. “I will grab her, hold her in my arms and not want to let go,” she said.
Though the ship is not expected to arrive until after noon Thursday, they don’t mind the wait. They’d rather be a day early than two minutes late.
CNN’s Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.
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