(2:30 a.m. EST -- MOBILE, Alabama) -- Hundreds of well wishers joined scores of media from around the country and beyond to welcome the passengers from Carnival Triumph home. Some people carried stuffed teddy bears, Valentine's Day balloons and bouquets and Wal-Mart bags filled with toiletries and clothing for their beleaguered loved ones.
Over continuing cheers -- from the ship and the ground -- and the buzz of helicopters overhead, Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill addressed the media shortly before passengers disembarked, thanking the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, the city of Mobile, Carnival crew and others for their help during the crisis. He also apologized again to passengers and their loved ones. His hands shaking as he held his notes, Cahill said he was going on board to apologize to passengers face-to-face.
"I know that conditions on board were very poor, I know it was very difficult, and I want to apologize again for subjecting our guests to that," Cahill said. "We pride ourselves on providing guests with a great vacation experience and clearly we failed miserably."
The cheers signaled the end of an arduous journey for the ship's passengers and crew that began Sunday when an engine fire crippled the ship's power and resulted in non-working toilets, lack of fresh food, hot water, and stifling heat in the lower decks.
Passengers with special health needs were the first to disembark, followed by those who had family members or taxis waiting. Pulling luggage on wheels, small groups of passengers quickly made their way under an overpass to waiting cars. Most said they had little time to talk, and were very anxious to get some rest, a hot shower, a good meal, and most of all -- home.
Robin Chandler of Houston marked her 50th birthday on board, and said the lobster and steak dinners passengers received today (after the Coast Guard delivered an additional generator to the ship Wednesday evening) were small consolation for the misery of the rest of the trip.
"The first two days people were hoarding food," said Chandler, who described the stench from lack of adequate plumbing as "horrible."
"They did not serve food sanitarily for the first two days, and after that they started wearing gloves and serving passengers instead of allowing passengers to get their own food."
She said she does not believe the compensation being offered thus far by Carnival -- a full refund, a free cruise and $500 -- is enough.
"There are lost wages -- I've got a sitter at home, and I've had to take off a lot of work," she said, adding that she does not plan to cruise again.
Echoing fellow passengers, Chandler said she thinks the crew did the best they could under the circumstances. "I just don't think we know the full story yet," she said.
Chandler was headed by taxi to a Mobile hotel, and planned to fly home Friday morning to her two boys.
Down the street, Nancy Petrone of Southern California and Cindy Bower of St. Louis waited on the sidewalk for rides to take them to their hotels.
The pair were part of an IT work group of nine who decided to cruise for a fun getaway.
Petrone said she would cruise again, "but not with Carnival."
Petrone planned to fly home Friday morning, while Bower's fiance planned to drive her back to St. Louis.
"The toilet did not work from Sunday morning on," Petrone said. "It was four and five hour lines standing for food, the heat was miserable, and Carnival did not seem to have any contingency plan for anything, nothing."
She said that up until Tuesday, food was serve yourself. "We kept saying why don't they serve us so they could control the portions and people would stop taking six and eight hamburgers. There was so much wasted food."
Petrone, a vegetarian, said she did not partake of the steak and lobster meal.
"We were done -- done standing in long lines."
And what is Petrone most looking forward to? "A hot shower and using a real toilet."
--by Kaija Wilkinson, Cruise Critic Contributor