Passengers who finally escaped the disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph were on the move early Friday, some checked into the comfort of hotels, others on buses or headed to charter flights home after five numbing days at sea on a ship paralyzed by an engine-room fire.
The vacation ship carrying some 4,200 people docked late Thursday in Mobile to raucous cheers from passengers weary of overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore at about 9:15 p.m. CST. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cellphones lit the night.
"It was horrible, just horrible" said Maria Hernandez, 28, of Angleton, Texas, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about waking up to smoke in her lower-level room Sunday from the engine-room fire and the days of heat and stench that followed. She was on a "girls trip" with friends.
It took about four hours for all passengers to disembark.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said passengers had three options: take a bus straight to Galveston, Texas, to retrieve cars parked at the ship's departure port, take a bus to New Orleans to stay at a hotel before a charter flight home or have family or friends pick them up in Mobile.
Gulliksen said up to 20 charter flights would leave New Orleans later Friday to take guests who stayed in hotels there to their final destinations.
Nearly 2,000 passengers arrived at a New Orleans Hilton in the wee hour of the morning, and by dawn many were headed out again to fly by chartered plane to Houston. They would then have to get a connecting flight home or take a chartered bus back to their cars in Galveston.
"It just feels so good to be on land again and to feel like I have options," said Tracey Farmer of Tulsa, Okla. "I'm just ready to see my family. It's been harder on them than us I think because they've been so worried about us. It's been extremely stressful for them."
Buses began arriving at the Port of Galveston on Friday morning after an eight-hour drive from Mobile. Port of Galveston police said as many as 800 people would arrive by bus to retrieve their vehicles or be shuttled onto other buses to reach home.
Elaine Roberts of Gainesville, Texas, and her family were among the first to arrive in Galveston. She told KHOU-TV the conditions on Triumph were a "cesspool."
For some, once they get to Galveston to their cars, they still face long drives getting home.
"It's going to be a very long day," said Dwayne McAbee, who says he'll drive from Galveston to his home in Fort Worth, Texas, a roughly six to seven hour drive.
Tugs began pulling the ship away from the dock Friday morning, moving it backward down a waterway in the direction of a shipyard where city officials said it will be repaired.
It wasn't long after the ship pulled into the Port of Mobile that passengers began streaming down the gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling carry-on luggage. An ambulance pulled up to a gate and pulled away, lights flashing.
For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, not knowing how long passengers had to endure their time aboard was the worst part.
"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her aboard to weather the cold nights. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back."
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "Happy V-Day" read one of the homemade signs made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
A few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal were waving lights at the ship as it carefully made its way alongside.
Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers from the cruise ship.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea.
Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
Passenger Ferguson said crew members tried to make the situation bearable.
"They did their best to keep our spirits up," she said.
Joseph and Cecilia Alvarez of San Antonio said some passengers passed the time by forming a Bible study group.
"It was awesome," he said. "It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back."
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
"The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors," Hill wrote. "Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes."
She said "there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
While the passengers are headed home, the Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment. Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
"This is my first and last cruise. So if anyone wants my free cruise, look me up," said Kendall Jenkins, 24, of Houston. Bounding off the ship clad in bathrobes, she and her friend Brittany Ferguson immediately kissed the pavement at the Port of Mobile in Alabama.