Passengers of the Carnival Triumph tried to put the memories of their nightmarish cruise behind them Friday, boarding buses and planes for home after five harrowing days aboard a vessel adrift at sea without power or working toilets.
Many of the roughly 3,000 passengers were bused to New Orleans to catch a flight home or to the ship's home port in Galveston, Texas. And as if they hadn't suffered enough, one of the buses broke down during the two-hour ride to New Orleans. Passengers on a different bus reported losing their luggage.
"I'm very frustrated that now our luggage is gone and missing," said Deborah Day of Piano, Texas, adding that she had made sure to check through every transfer point herself, only to lose it when she trusted Carnival to put it on a separate truck instead of the bus she was riding on.
But she had kind words for the crew aboard the disabled ship, adding, "Those people were incredible."
Other passengers were taking things more in stride as they got closer to home.
Georgia Jackson, 66, of Cedar Hill, Texas, said that while the cruise was not ideal, it was not all bad either.
"About the only thing that's been reported is the bad and Carnival has been treating us like VIPs since the boat docked," she said in Galveston, adding that the crew did the best they could with a terrible set of circumstances.
"The ship looked like vagabond city," Jackson said, "but by and large people got along great."
While some called the journey a horrible experience, others spoke of bonding with fellow passengers during the long, exhaustive struggle to get home.
As ship conditions deteriorated after an engine-room fire Sunday, travelers formed Bible study groups, shared or traded precious supplies and even welcomed strangers into their private cabins. Long after they've returned to the everyday luxuries of hot showers and cold drinks, passengers said, they will remember the crew and the personal bonds formed during a cruel week at sea.
The tired tourists finally reached land Friday and gave a glimpse into the intensely uncomfortable journey they had endured.
Sandy Jackson, of Houston, was fortunate to have an upper-level room with a balcony and a breeze that kept the air in her cabin fresh. Rooms on the lower decks were too foul or stifling, so Jackson took in five people, including four strangers.
"We knew one. The others we're very good friends with now," Jackson said. "Everyone was very cordial in sharing supplies."
Brandi Dorsett, of Sweeny, Texas, said people were antsy and irritable at times, and there was tension. But it never got out of hand.
"People were bartering. Can I have your cereal for this? Can I have your drink for that?" she said. "We had one lady, she was begging for cigarettes for diapers. There were no diapers on the boat. There was no formula on the boat."
The ship carrying 4,200 people left Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7 for a four-day jaunt to Cozumel, Mexico. The fire paralyzed the ship early Sunday, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico until tugboats towed the massive 14-story vessel to Mobile. It arrived late Thursday to cheers and flashing cameras. It took four hours for all of the passengers to disembark.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers hung over the side.
To pass the time, passenger Joseph Alvarez said, about 45 people gathered in a public room on the lower deck for Bible study.
"It was awesome," he said. "It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back."
Because many passengers were sleeping on the outside deck, Dwayne Chapman of Lake Charles, La., used his pocket knife to cut decorative rope to make tents out of bed sheets. At first, other passengers told him they thought he was going to get in trouble, but later, everyone wanted to borrow his knife to do the same thing.
"I really think we've made some lifelong friends going through this ordeal," Chapman's wife, Kim, said.
When it was over, many passengers were just grateful for simple pleasures. After days of warm drinks, Cheryl McIntosh and her husband were glad to see coolers full of ice.
"The first thing we did was open up those Diet Cokes and we drank some," McIntosh said.
Others were still recuperating from the ordeal.
"I have an upset stomach pretty bad. I'll be seeing a doctor this afternoon," 53-year-old Sandy Jackson said as she checked out of a downtown Mobile hotel Friday, where relatives drove to pick her up. "Stress, food, everything. It was hard to eat properly."
A day's worth of car rides back home to Indiana wasn't very daunting for Brianna Adkins after the cruise, which she called the worst experience of her life.
Invited on the cruise by a relative who got a free trip for memorizing Bible verses, the 18-year-old preacher's daughter was shocked by conditions aboard the ship. The trip that began so great - swimming with dolphins in Cozumel and watching Las Vegas-style shows in the ship's theater - ended with her dissolving into tears in an Alabama cruise terminal after the ship had docked.
"You never think it will happen to you, but it did," Adkins said.
Tugs pulled the ship away from the dock Friday, moving it down a waterway to a shipyard where it will be repaired. Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the damage assessment was ongoing.
The cleanup seemed daunting. Passengers described water-logged carpet, sewage seeping through the walls, overflowing toilets and a stench so bad people choked when they tried to endure it.
But by most accounts, the crew did as much as they could, using disinfectant and picking up plastic bags of excrement after toilets stopped working.
Six investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were in Mobile to look into the cause of the engine-room fire, which happened some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency was working with the Coast Guard and the Bahamas Maritime Authority, which will serve as the primary investigative agency.
The Bahamian government is taking the lead in the investigation because the Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and it was in international waters at the time of the incident, Holloway said.
The NTSB will be studying the mechanics of the ship "just like we would in any investigation, trying to determine what caused the fire, where the breakdown was," Holloway said. The investigation could also look at the ship's emergency procedures for passengers, he said.
Passengers described a horrifying scene after the fire. Some said they smelled smoke and received conflicting instructions about every 15 minutes over the PA system. Others ran for lifeboats.
No one was hurt in the fire, and just two people were taken off the ship for medical conditions as a precaution.
Connie Ede, of Houston, was on the cruise with her husband. During the fire, the two got their life jackets ready and put cellphones, passports, money and credit cards in their pockets.
"All in all, I wish it hadn't happened, but it did, and we survived," she said.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized to passengers, saying late Thursday, "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
The cruise line offered passengers a full refund of the cruise and transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount spent for the cruise, reimbursement for some shipboard expenses and $500 per person.
But those gestures may not be enough. Less than 24 hours after the boat docked, the first lawsuit was filed against Carnival Corp. by passenger Cassie Terry, who said she feared for her life and worried about falling seriously ill from the raw sewage and spoiled food. Her complaint seeks unspecified damages.
Gulliksen said the company hadn't seen the suit and was not in a position to comment.