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Carnival Triumph passengers finally off the ship

Exhausted, grubby and almost five days late, the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew aboard the disabled Carnival Triumph returned to the U.S. late Thursday — to a city almost 500 miles from its home port.

Thousands of passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph cheered, screamed and waved from outside balconies as the ship was pulled in shortly after 10 p.m.

Families were excited and relieved as passengers began disembarking about an hour after the ship docked. All passengers were off the ship in Alabama by about 2 a.m. Friday and arrived at a New Orleans hotel at about 3 a.m.

Around 10 Friday morning, tugs began pulling the disabled ship from the Alabama dock to a shipyard for repairs.

“This is the best Valentine’s Day ever,” said Jon Hair, of Lake Charles, La., grabbing the hand of his son, 8-year-old Jace, whose mom, sister, aunt and cousins were aboard. “It’s great,” Jace said as he left for the terminal, where dozens of other families waited.

Jon Hair held a banner: "Thank God it's over!"

And as Julie Hair and her 12-year-old daughter Julianna came off the ship, Jon kissed his wife. “I feel blessed,” she said.

Buses arrived at the Hilton in New Orleans early Friday and were greeted by paramedics with wheelchairs to roll in passengers who were elderly or too fatigued to walk.

Many were tired and didn't want to talk. There were long lines as they waited to get checked into rooms.

For 28-year-old Maria Hernandez of Angleton, Texas, the hotel stay is only part of her journey home. Hernandez, like hundreds others, will have a brief reprieve at the hotel before flying home later in the day.

"It was horrible, just horrible" she said, tears welling in her eyes as she talked about waking up to smoke in her lower-level room Sunday and the days of heat and stench to follow. She was on a "girls' trip" with friends.

She said the group hauled mattresses to upper-level decks to escape the heat. As she pulled her luggage into the hotel, a flashlight around her neck, she managed a smile and even a giggle when asked to show her red "poo-poo bag" -- distributed by the cruise line for collecting human waste.

This was only part of her journey to get home. Hernandez, like hundreds others, would get to enjoy a brief reprieve at the hotel before flying home later Friday.

"I just can't wait to be home," she said.

Earlier, Gerry Cahill, Carnival president and CEO, said at a brief news conference Thursday night, while the Triumph was docking, that he appreciated the patience of the 3,000 passengers on board.

He said Carnival prides itself on providing people with a great vacation “and clearly we failed in this particular case.” He also said he planned to go aboard the ship and personally apologize to passengers.

As the ship inched closer to the dock in Mobile — bringing and end to the saga — relatives of passengers aboard became more excited.

Larry Butterfras of Houston, whose wife Pat had taken the Triumph cruise from its home port in Galveston, Texas, with seven friends on a birthday celebration, said he and a few other husbands drove down so they could be there to greet their wives as soon as they stepped off the ship. “When I was able to talk to her today and tell her we were here, she cried. She told her friends and they cried. It was very emotional.”

“I just want her home,” said Matthew Minyard, of Fate, Texas, anxiously waiting to greet his wife Bethany. “It’s been hard.”

Three tugs were needed to pull the 100,000-ton cruise ship back to the U.S. from waters off Mexico, where fire broke out Sunday morning in the engine room. The cause of the blaze, extinguished by automatic systems, is still not known.

The ship lost propulsion and had to rely on emergency generator power, leaving passengers with a limited number of working bathrooms and no air conditioning. No one was hurt in the fire. Sister ships delivered additional food and supplies. The cruise line has canceled sailings through April 13 and promised to compensate passengers with a full refund, $500 in cash and a discount on a future cruise.

That may be meager comfort for frustrated passengers, who have complained to family members via email and text about foul odors, dark hallways and food shortages. Television images from CNN showed passengers with signs of “Help” and “I love you” hanging from their cabin rooms.

There were stories of meals consisting of cucumber and onion or peanut butter and onion sandwiches, but Minyard said his wife told him they had lobster and eggs, bacon and sausage Thursday morning. With landfall only a few hours away, the Triumph suffered another misfortune when the towline snapped, bringing the vessel to a dead stop. The line was quickly replaced, and the crawl to Mobile resumed.

Officials had said it would take passengers up to five hours to get off the ship, and then they faced an hours-long bus ride or other travel hassles to finally get back home.

As the vessel drew within cellphone range, passengers vented their anger. Renee Shanar, of Houston, was on board with her husband, who has heart trouble. She said they were told they will be among the first to disembark. “I don’t believe them, they’ve been lying to us from the beginning,” Shanar said.

Disgusted by the foul air and heat of the lower decks, many passengers hauled mattresses and bed sheets onto the top deck and slept there, even staying put in a soaking rain. As the ship approached the coast, a slew of Carnival workers arrived, removed the bedding and took it downstairs.

“Today they cleaned the ship, they’re serving better food, covering up basically, but at least they’re making it more bearable,” said Kalin Hill, of Houston, who boarded the Triumph as part of a bachelorette party.

The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable. Carnival didn’t immediately respond to questions about the illnesses reported by some passengers.

Once passengers arrived in Alabama, their stay was expected to be short. Carnival said they were being given the option of boarding buses directly to Galveston, Texas, to Houston — a roughly seven-hour drive — or taking a two-hour bus ride to New Orleans, where the company said it booked 1,500 hotel rooms. Those staying in New Orleans will be flown Friday to Houston. Carnival said it will cover all the transportation costs.

“I can’t imagine being on that ship this morning and then getting on a bus,” said Kirk Hill, Kalin Hill’s father. “If I hit land in Mobile, you’d have a hard time getting me on a bus.”

Thelbert Lanier was waiting at the Mobile port for his wife, who texted him early Thursday.

“Room smells like an outhouse. Cold water only, toilets haven’t work in 3 1/2 days. Happy Valentines Day!!! I love u & wish I was there,” she said in the text message, which was viewed by The Associated Press. “It’s 4:00 am. Can’t sleepit’s cold & I’m starting to get sick.”

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the company tried to keep families and friends updated and established a toll-free number. Gulliksen said about 200 Carnival employees were in Mobile waiting to assist passengers. Family members who have driven to Mobile have been given hotel rooms at no cost, the company said via Twitter.

In an eerily similar case, the Carnival Splendor was set adrift for four days off Mexico’s Pacific coast in November 2010 after an explosion in a diesel generator. Other ships — some owned by Carnival’s parent, Carnival Corp., others owned by other cruise lines — also have suffered engine fires, but few have been crippled as long. Carnival Corp. is also the parent of Costa Cruises whose ship, Concordia, wrecked in January 2012, killing 32 people.

Despite the intense media coverage, experts said they do not expect the incident to adversely affect Carnival or the cruise industry significantly in the long-term. And several cruise agents said they had seen little impact in the days since the fire was reported.

“We’re surprised we’re having as strong a week as we’re having,’’ said David Crooks, senior vice president of product and operations for World Travel Holdings, which owns the huge travel cruise agencies CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

“I’m not saying we haven’t had calls [from future passengers] but we haven’t been flooded.’’

Once passengers get back on land and share their stories, that could change, he said. But, he noted, “unlike a hotel, every cruise ship goes out at over 100 percent occupancy They’re going to go out full no matter what.’’

In a few months, that could translate into better values for consumers. But Thursday, he said, he was more concerned about filling demand for passengers who were booked on the Triumph sailings that Carnival has now canceled and still want to cruise during the busy Spring Break period.

This report includes dispatches from The Associated Press.