SAN DIEGO, California (AFP) - – Relieved passengers from a stricken US cruise ship finally stepped back on dry land, voicing joy at the end of a four-day ordeal which one described as a "vacation from hell."
The 3,299 mostly American passengers on board the luxury "Carnival Splendor," left adrift in the Pacific after an engine fire Monday, streamed off the ship in San Diego where it arrived after being towed by tugs for two days.
Some praised the way the 1,167 crew on board dealt with the crisis, but for many it was a nightmare as the vessel was left without hot water or hot food, while many of the toilets did not work for the first day of the emergency.
"It was putrid like a pit toilet," Greg Parish, 48, told AFP, saying it was his first and last cruise. "This is a vacation from hell... I think I'm pretty done with this cruise business."
"It was awful, it was sewage," added 41-year-old Maria Azila, on her fifth cruise to celebrate her mother's 75th birthday, describing the smell on the ship.
The 113,000-ton ship was on a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise which started Sunday in Long Beach, California, but only made it some 200 miles (300 km) south of San Diego, off the Mexican coast, when the blaze erupted early Monday.
The vessel spent over a day adrift, before ocean-going tugs reached it Tuesday and began the two-day limp back to US soil which finally ended Thursday with emotional reunions with loved ones in San Diego.
Some passengers had praise for the hundreds of staff on board the liner, who helped organize activities ranging from card games to musical singalongs to while away the time.
"The crew did a great job," said Barbara Levant from British Columbia, describing how staff slept under the tables in the dining room because their quarters -- at the bottom of the ship -- were too hot without air conditioning.
They also formed human chains to carry food up several floors, since the elevators were not working.
For some, the worst moment was when the fire first broke out, waking passengers on Monday morning.
"We woke up at 6:00 am to the smell of smoke. I opened the hallway door and it was filled with smoke," said Parish, echoing other' accounts that passengers were only told there was smoke, not a full-blown engine fire.
"I felt like they were kind of leading us on and lying to us. They weren't telling us what was really happening. The whole area was filled with smoke and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what is going on."
Passenger Marquis Horace voiced anger at being left in the dark -- literally.
"It was absolutely deplorable ...I felt like marooned on a prison ship, because I was in the dark and I had mayo (mayonnaise) sandwiches and backed-up toilets. It was just bad, it was really bad all the way round," he told CNN.
Azila said she was afraid of drug-runners or pirates boarding the ship while it was adrift, before the tugs and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier came to the rescue.
"I was scared. I was afraid for the 32 hours we were there, for sure," she added, describing the moment the US Navy ship arrived, carrying some 4,500 pounds of groceries including bottled water, Spam and Pop Tarts.
"I thought, 'Oh my Gosh, we're going to be saved.' It was like the cavalry was coming," she said.
Meanwhile the US National Transportation Safety Board said it and the US Coast Guard would help investigate the cause of engine fire. The probe will be led by authorities in Panama, the country where the ship was flagged.
Whatever the cause, passengers will get a full refund, their travel expenses paid and will receive another cruise equal to the amount paid for their troubled trip, according to the vessel's owners, Carnival Cruise Lines.
The company's president and CEO, Gerry Cahill, said: "We wish to thank our guests for their patience and cooperation during this very difficult situation and offer our sincerest apologies."
As they stepped onto the dockside Thursday, one enterprising local was selling T-shirts emblazoned with "I survived the 2010 Carnival Cruise Spamcation" -- a reference to the cheap tinned meat delivered to the unlucky cruisers. There appeared to be few takers.
Reposted From AFP