Robin Burgess was enjoying the last full day of her cruise on Feb. 10 when she smelled smoke and saw passengers donning life jackets, her first inkling of the ordeal that was to follow aboard Carnival Corp.’s (CCL:US) Triumph.
“It was terrifying,” she said.
For the next four days, the 42-year-old school principal from Carthage, Mississippi, said she felt trapped in her room, with no lights, no functioning toilet and the smell of sewage permeating the ship.
“I’m just going to get a good hot meal and a very hot shower,” Burgess said in an interview last night after disembarking in Mobile, Alabama.
The Triumph reached shore yesterday, towed in by tugboats, four days later than planned. The engine-room fire off the coast of Mexico knocked out power, leaving some 3,100 passengers to cope with unsanitary conditions, food shortages and listing that had them concerned the boat would tip over.
Passengers cheered from the decks as the Triumph arrived at about 9:15 p.m. local time. They began to disembark about an hour later. All passengers were off the ship at about 1 a.m., said Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman.
“It’s just good to be on land right now,” said Brittany Parkinson, a 24-year-old Texan who exited the Triumph wearing a bathrobe and immediately kissed the ground.
The Triumph is being towed today from the cruise terminal to a shipyard in Mobile for damage assessment. Whether the ship needs to be placed in dry dock for repairs to be completed hasn’t been determined, Gulliksen said.
Docking didn’t end the journey for most passengers. Carnival hired more than 100 buses to transport guests two hours to hotels in New Orleans. One bus broke down on the way and passengers had to be transferred to another, Gulliksen said.
About a dozen Delta Air Lines Inc. charter flights are taking them to Houston, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based airline. Delta’s twin-aisle fleet includes Boeing Co. 767s and Airbus SAS A330s, which carry more than 200 people. The guests will then again board buses for Galveston, Texas, Carnival said.
The Triumph left that city on Feb. 7 with 1,086 crew members, scheduled to return on Feb. 11 after 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.
“The most important thing for me right now is to go onboard and apologize in person,” Gerry Cahill, chief executive officer of the company’s Carnival Cruise Lines unit, said in a press conference last night before boarding the ship.
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, killing 32 people.
Debbie Moyse, a 32-year-old mother from Phoenix who was on the Triumph with four friends, said passengers slept on the deck in tents made of sheets to escape smell and heat below. The hardest part was the listing of the ship. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘Are we going to tip over?’”
Family members waiting for passengers at the Alabama Cruise Terminal described their distress. 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 for a father-daughter holiday. Both women talked to their daughters on 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 their 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.”
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 (CCL:US), based in Miami, fell 1.2 percent $36.92 at the close in New York. The stock has gained 22 percent in the past 12 months, as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (CCL:US) rose 13 percent.
Robin Diedrich, an Edward Jones analyst, downgraded the stock yesterday to “hold” from “buy.”
Carnival said 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.
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 customers.
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 wasn’t large enough to accommodate the aircraft the company would use to fly the passengers to Houston.
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.
Fires on ships happen as often as four times a year and investigators should explore if there is a pattern to the incidents, said Ross Klein, a sociology professor who has testified about cruise line safety before the U.S. Senate. 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.
“The impact will be short lived,” he said in an e-mail.
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. 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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