Stranded cruise passengers facing dirty conditions

February 13, 2013 - 3:30 AM
Disabled Cruise Ship

In this image released by the U.S. Coast Guard on Feb. 11, 2013, a small boat belonging to the Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous patrols near the cruise ship Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico, Feb. 11, 2013. The Carnival Triumph has been floating aimlessly about 150 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula since a fire erupted in the aft engine room early Sunday, knocking out the ship's propulsion system. No one was injured and the fire was extinguished. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard- Lt. Cmdr. Paul McConnell)

HOUSTON (AP) — The head of Carnival Cruise Lines said Tuesday his company was working hard to ensure the thousands of passengers stranded on a disabled ship in the Gulf of Mexico were as comfortable as possible while the vessel was being towed to port in Alabama.

The reassurances made by Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Gerry Cahill were in sharp contrast to what some passengers have told relatives about dirty and hot conditions aboard the ship, including overflowing toilets and limited access to food.

Cahill said the ship has running water and most of its 23 public restrooms and some of the guest cabin bathrooms are working. He downplayed the possibility of an outbreak of disease from unsanitary conditions, saying the ship hasn't seen an abnormal number of people reporting to the infirmary as being ill.

"No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions onboard the ship," Cahill said at a news conference in Miami. "We obviously are very, very sorry about what is taking place."

Jimmy Mowlam, 63, said his 37-year-old son, Rob Mowlam, who is aboard the ship told him by phone Monday night that there is no running water and few working toilets. He said passengers were given plastic bags to "use for their business."

The ship left Galveston, Texas, for a four-day cruise last Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members. The ship was about 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula when an engine room fire Sunday knocked out its primary power source, crippling its water and plumbing systems and leaving it adrift on only a backup power.

No one was injured in the fire, but Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said Tuesday that a passenger with a pre-existing medical condition was taken off the ship as a precaution.

Everyone else will likely have to remain onboard until the ship reaches Mobile, Ala., which is expected to happen Thursday, weather permitting.

Besides the two tugs, at least two other Carnival cruise ships have been diverted to the Triumph to leave supplies and a 210-foot Coast Guard cutter was at the scene, Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm said Tuesday.

"If they do need any help, we're there," he said.

Mowlam said his son told him the lack of ventilation on Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Triumph had made it too hot to sleep inside. He said Rob and his new bride — they got married onboard Saturday — have seen many passengers set up camp on the ocean liner's decks and in its common areas. Mowlam said he wasn't sure where his son was sleeping.

"He said up on deck it looks like a shanty town, with sheets, almost like tents, mattresses, anything else they can pull to sleep on," said Mowlam, 63, who is from Warren, in southeast Texas. His son is from nearby Nederland.

Mowlam said his son indicated that passengers are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

"So far people have been pretty much taking it in stride," Mowlam said his son told him.

Rob Mowlam told his father the ship's crew had started giving free alcohol to passengers.

"He was concerned about what that was going to lead to when people start drinking too much," Mowlam said.

Other passengers have described more dire conditions, including overflowing toilets and limited access to food.

Texas resident Brent Nutt, whose wife is on the cruise ship, said Monday that she told him the "whole boat stinks extremely bad" and some passengers were getting sick and throwing up. Nutt said his wife reported "water and feces all over the floor."

Jay Herring, a former senior officer for Carnival Cruise Lines who also sailed on the Carnival Triumph, said one of the biggest concerns crew members will have until the ship docks is the potential for disease outbreak, particularly norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea.

"Housekeeping, others are probably working double shifts to keep the mess clean and wipe down and sanitize all the common areas," said Herring, who worked for Carnival from 2002 to 2004 and spent four months on the Triumph.

Carnival hasn't determined what caused the fire, said Oliva, the company spokeswoman.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday it has opened an investigation into the cause of the fire. The NTSB said the Bahamas Maritime Agency will lead the investigation because the ship carries a Bahamian flag.

The ship was originally going to be towed to a port in Progreso, Mexico, but after currents pushed it northward, a decision was made to take it to Alabama to make it easier for passengers without passports to get home, the company said.

Cahill said Carnival has reserved more than 1,500 hotel rooms in Mobile and New Orleans for Thursday. The company plans to return passengers back to Houston Friday using charter flights.

A similar situation occurred on a Carnival cruise ship in November 2010. That vessel, named Splendor, was stranded with 4,500 people aboard after a fire in the engine room. When the passengers disembarked in San Diego, they described a nightmarish three days in the Pacific with limited food, power and bathroom access.

Cahill said the Spendor's fire was different because it involved a "catastrophic explosion" in a diesel generator, and the Triumph's fire had "some other cause." He could not say what the economic impact will be due to the fire aboard the Triumph. The impact from the Splendor was $40 million, he said.

Carnival canceled the Triumph's next two voyages, scheduled to depart Monday and Saturday. Passengers aboard the stranded ship will also receive a full refund.

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Associated Press writers Michael Graczyk and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, David Warren in Dallas and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.