Passengers began leaving Carnival Corp.’s (CCL:US) crippled Triumph cruise ship after being towed to the dock in Mobile, Alabama, to end a four-day ordeal at sea.
Guests cheered from the deck as the ship arrived at 9:15 p.m. local time and began to disembark about an hour later, after the cruise line’s president went aboard to apologize. Getting all 3,100 passengers off will take as long as five hours, Terry Thornton, senior vice president for marketing, said. The ship had no power and one functioning elevator following the Feb. 10 engine fire off the coast of Mexico.
“It’ll take us some time, but we do have a good plan in place and we do have a lot of people in place,” Thornton said.
Docking won’t end the ordeal for the passengers, who have complained of sickness as basic functions like sewage disposal broke down aboard the stricken liner. Guests will be bused for more than two hours to hotels in New Orleans. Chartered aircraft will fly them to Houston tomorrow, where they would again board buses for Galveston, Texas.
“The most important thing for me right now is to go onboard and apologize in person, and that’s what I’m going to do,” said Gerry Cahill, the chief executive of the company’s Carnival Cruise Lines in a press conference after the ship arrived.
The Triumph left Galveston on Feb. 7 with 1,086 crew members on what was to have been a four-day voyage with a stop in Cozumel, Mexico. No one was harmed in the fire, which is being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board. Passengers were originally scheduled to return on Feb. 11.
The crippling of the Triumph is the second high-profile incident for a Carnival ship in a little more than a year. The company’s Costa Concordia ran aground off of Italy in January 2012.
Family members waiting for passengers of the Triumph at the Alabama Cruise Terminal described unsanitary conditions and food shortages. Mary Poret, 46, and Kim McKerreghan, 40, of Lufkin, Texas, sent their two daughters, Rebekah, 12, and Allie, 10, on the cruise with their ex-husbands in a father-daughter holiday. Both women talked to their daughters Feb. 11.
“She was crying so hard,” said McKerreghan in an interview outside the terminal. “Just crying her eyes out. I couldn’t talk to her at first without crying too. You don’t realize how small you are until you can’t do anything to help your child.”
McKerreghan said her ex-husband told her that they’d been asked to urinate in the shower and that when he showered, the urine backed up and splashed all over him. He and her daughter slept on mattresses in the hall, and her husband had to turn his in after urine on the floor soaked through it.
“They’ve been horrible,” Poret said of Carnival’s customer service. “We’d get people on the phone and they were reading scripts. ‘We’re doing the best we can. Your loved ones are coming home.’ It didn’t matter to them what we’d ask. They’d say the same thing over and over again.”
Cahill, the Carnival executive, defended the crew and said they did everything they could for passengers.
“I know it has been very trying for our guests,” Cahill said. “But I can tell you our crew worked tirelessly. I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. I know the conditions onboard were poor and I want to apologize again to our guests.”
Allen Adamson, who consults with companies on crisis management at Landor Associates in New York, said Carnival needs to go beyond the refunds and discounts that have been promised to keep customers happy.
“They’re going to have to have some visible sign, some very clear program, other than, ‘Trust us, we’re not going to do this again,’” Adamson said. “The first time something like this happens, brands can bounce back well, the second time, less well. The third time it creates long-term problems.”
Carnival may face lawsuits from passengers over the incident, according to Jack Hickey, a personal injury attorney in Miami.
“We’re talking about mental anguish,” Hickey said in a telephone interview. “There is legal recourse.”
The decision to move passengers by bus to New Orleans rather than spend the night in Mobile puzzled some of them.
Staying in Mobile “sure would have been better for us,” said passenger Larry Poret, 57, father of Rebekah, in a phone interview from sea. “It will probably be 11 o’clock before we get off the boat and to have two more hours at least, it’s just more stress. We are all so tired it would have been better to just go 10 or 15 minutes and be done with it.”
Carnival’s Thornton said that Mobile’s airport isn’t large enough to accommodate the aircraft the company will use to fly the passengers to Houston. Guests who choose to go directly to Texas tonight will be taken by bus. Carnival staff members have been staying in Mobile, he said.
Buddy Rice, a spokesman for the Mobile Airport Authority (27008MF:US), said the city’s two airports can handle large planes. Airport officials had discussions with airlines representing Carnival earlier in the week, and none with cruise line employees themselves, he said.
“We’re ready to help this humanitarian effort in any way we can,” Rice said.
Employees of Carnival began boarding the Triumph earlier to help guests disembark, Vance Gulliksen, a company spokesman, said.
Carnival said yesterday the incident will reduce earnings in the first half of fiscal 2013 by 8 cents to 10 cents a share. A total of 14 Triumph voyages through April 13 have been canceled. Passengers will receive a full refund and credit toward future cruises. Those on the Triumph will receive an additional $500 in compensation.
Ross Klein, a sociology professor who has testified about cruise line safety before the U.S. Senate, said fires on ships happen as often as four times a year and that investigators should explore if there is a pattern to the incidents. Klein, who teaches at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s Newfoundland and operates a website called cruisejunkie.com, said he believed cruise bookings will lag initially and bounce back in six weeks or less.
“I think the impact will be short lived,” he said in an e-mail.
Carnival (CCL:US), based in Miami, fell 0.3 percent to $37.35 at the close in New York, after dropping 4 percent yesterday. The stock has gained 23 percent in the past 12 months, as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (CCL:US) rose 13 percent.
Edward Jones analyst Robin Diedrich downgraded the stock to “hold” from “buy” today.
Carnival’s Costa Concordia ran aground near the island of Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012, hours after leaving a port near Rome with 4,200 passengers and crew. In that incident, 32 people died. Carnival shares fell 7.5 percent that month (CCL:US).
The Costa unit was being probed for “possible violations” of the Italian administrative responsibility law, the company said in January. Captain Francesco Schettino is under investigation for allegedly causing the shipwreck and may face charges of manslaughter and abandoning the ship before the evacuation was completed. He denies any wrongdoing.
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