(CNN) — It’s almost, but not quite, over for the 4,229 passengers and crew stuck on a filthy, disabled cruise ship limping into port five days after it was due.
As the Carnival Triumph was being towed toward Mobile, Alabama, passengers gathered on deck, waving as a helicopter flew overheard. About a dozen people used their bodies to spell out “HELP.”
Some made signs on sheets sending well-wishes on this Valentine’s Day to loved ones. Others lounged on deck chairs, passing the time.
It appeared help was still hours away, a Carnival Cruise Lines executive said.
Terry Thornton, vice president of revenue and planning, said the ship was expected to dock after 10:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. ET).
The journey home was delayed for a short time when the towline from the lead tugboat to the ship snapped.
“It looked like a whip in the water,” passenger Darryl Malone said, adding he was being told to get off the deck via an announcement broadcast throughout the ship. “They’re telling us to go inside, not look overboard because one of the towlines broke.”
Despite the delay, passengers were thrilled to be nearing port.
“I just had a crab sandwich with lobster for lunch because they are finishing off all the food,” said Ed Buck, who was staying on an upper floor. “Life is good. People are very excited right now. We’re getting back. You know, I think the media’s made a lot of — made it sound real bad. It’s not quite as bad as everybody says.”
Most people didn’t agree with Buck, who said he has cruised 13 times and will do so again.
“I don’t know how much more we could have took,” passenger Larry Poret said via cell phone. Poret was aboard with his 12-year-old daughter, Rebekah, who said the ordeal has been “really, really difficult.”
Thanks to CNN cameras aboard a helicopter circling the crippled ship, Rebekah’s mother, Mary Poret, was able to see her daughter for the first time in six days.
“It’s excellent, I’m very happy,” Mary Poret said.
“I’m so excited to see her and she’s so excited to see me,” Rebekah said. “I can’t wait to get back.”
“We see land right now,” she said.
“Yay! It’s just going to get bigger,” Mary Poret answered.
The relief was immense, especially in light of the frightening call Poret received from her daughter about 30 hours after an engine room fire on Sunday.
“She was hysterical, crying hysterically. She was scared. She don’t know what was going to happen next,” Mary Poret said. “And what broke my heart the very most was her saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again,’ and that’s really hard to hear from your 12-year-old daughter.”
Once the ship ties up at the dock, it will take four to five hours to get everyone off, Thornton said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Coast Guard members and a Carnival team boarded the ship before it arrived in port to help speed efforts to get passengers off as quickly as possible, he said.
Some families gathered at the Alabama Cruise Terminal, far from where the ship was originally supposed to dock in Galveston, Texas. Marissa Jenks said her family reported they had a hot meal Thursday morning and crew members were trying to clean up the ship as it neared port.
Adam Buck, a spokesman for the city of Mobile, said about 75 people were waiting for their loved ones. Family members who spoke to CNN said they had come from Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas. Some had come in as early as Wednesday but the bulk of people arrived Thursday afternoon, with each hour bringing a few more cars.
Most of the anxious families couldn’t bear the thought of their relatives being on a bus for hours and had gotten hotel rooms in Mobile where the homecoming would include a long shower and a meal.
Larry Poret confirmed reports of dire conditions aboard the ship, saying urine and feces streamed in the halls and down walls after toilet facilities failed, soaking the mattress of a friend of his who was sleeping in a hallway.
Emergency power failures caused section doors to slam shut, panicking some passengers who had no idea what was happening.
“We definitely are not adequately informed,” Poret said.
The Triumph, carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members, was on its way home Sunday when a fire off the coast of Mexico left the vessel listing to the side and drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents.
Boredom and stress
Poret said toilets on the ship worked on and off, but were too inconsistent to trust.
He said waste tipped out of some commodes and sloshed across floors as the ship listed to the side.
“It runs down the walls from one floor to the next. It’s running out of somebody’s bathroom out into the hallway all the way across,” he said.
Long lines for food and frequent delays were constantly aggravating, he said.
“Here we are looking for hope that, hey it’s 6 o’clock, it’s going to get better,” he said. “And 6 o’clock comes and goes and all of a sudden an announcement at 8, ‘Hey, we’re running behind schedule.’ Well, no joke.”
The incident aboard the ship scared Poret’s daughter and a friend taking the cruise with her, Poret said.
“As soon as you get them calmed down, the electric goes out and doors start slamming shut,” he said.
During less stressful times, passengers passed the hours playing cards, walking the deck and going to see what was happening on other areas of the ship, Poret said.
Passengers set up charging stations to help their fellow passengers juice up cell phones and other devices, he said.
Poret and his daughter said they just wanted to sleep through the ordeal.
“When we wake up I ask myself and my dad, ‘Can I go back to sleep again,’ because I want another day to pass so bad,” Rebekah said.
The final trip home
Carnival promises an army of about 200 employees will take care of its passengers once they clear customs.
Passengers can board buses to Galveston, where the cruise originated, or Houston, or spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.
Carnival said it has reserved and arranged approximately 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.
Carnival officials had initially planned to tow the ship to a Mexican port, but after Gulf currents pushed it farther north before tugboats could take control, and considering that 900 of the passengers do not have passports, the company decided to take the Triumph to Mobile instead, where it can be repaired.
Compensation for travelers
Thornton said conditions had improved on the ship, which he said is in “excellent shape” and would be “fully provisioned” by the time it reaches port.
The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.
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.
Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of Skift.com, a travel website.
“The passengers on the ship aren’t going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home,” he said. Travel “insurance really doesn’t cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn’t interrupted and they aren’t incurring extra expenses … so they can’t be compensated that way.”
Still, there’s no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.
“It’s a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise,” Clampet said.
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.
It’s also not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line’s ships.
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.
After this ill-fated cruise, the Triumph won’t host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.