(CNN) — People aboard the Carnival Triumph have gotten used to standing in long lines, but Thursday night thousands of people were starting to queue up so they could get off the ship as fast as possible when it finally docks in a few hours.
Julie Morgan said the line in her area was 300 people deep already but her group was still walking around the deck because they wouldn’t be able to actually get off the boat until the wee hours of the morning.
It’s almost over for the 4,227 passengers and crew stuck on a filthy, disabled cruise ship limping into port three days after it was due.
As the Carnival Triumph inched closer to Mobile, Alabama, passengers gathered on deck, waving as a helicopter flew overheard. About a dozen people used their bodies to spell out “HELP.”
Some made signs on sheets sending well-wishes on this Valentine’s Day to loved ones. Others used life vests to form a giant heart, then when the sun began to set, they turned on the emergency strobe lights.
As night fell, it appeared help was just hours away.
Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines, said the ship was expected to dock after 10 p.m. (11 p.m. ET).
The journey home was delayed for four hours when the towline from the lead tugboat to the ship snapped and another tug pushing the ship broke a bit, Alabama State Port Authority Director Jimmy Lyons said.
“(The broken line) looked like a whip in the water,” passenger Darryl Malone said, adding he was being told to get off the deck via an announcement broadcast throughout the ship. “They’re telling us to go inside, not look overboard because one of the towlines broke.”
Despite the delay, passengers were thrilled to be nearing port.
“I just had a crab sandwich with lobster for lunch because they are finishing off all the food,” said Ed Buck, who was staying on an upper floor. “Life is good. People are very excited right now. We’re getting back. You know, I think the media’s made a lot of — made it sound real bad. It’s not quite as bad as everybody says.”
Most people didn’t agree with Buck, who said he has cruised 13 times and will do so again.
“I don’t know how much more we could have took,” passenger Larry Poret said via cell phone. Poret was aboard with his 12-year-old daughter, Rebekah, who said the ordeal has been “really, really difficult.”
Crews were working to clean up the ship as it neared the dock.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” passenger Slyvester Davis said, adding that things improved once officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board announced they were coming aboard. “It’s sort of frustrating because it doesn’t look now the way it looked and the way we’ve been living.”
Many passengers lauded the work of the crew, saying they had worked long shifts to make sure their guests were as comfortable as possible.
“The crew has worked nonstop,” Morgan said. “They have been, from daylight to dark. I think one shift didn’t even — once they got a break … it was too hot on their deck to go to sleep.”
Once the ship ties up at the dock, it will take four to five hours to get everyone off, Thornton said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Coast Guard members and a Carnival team boarded the ship before it arrived in port to help speed efforts to get passengers off as quickly as possible, he said.
Some families gathered at the Alabama Cruise Terminal, far from where the ship was originally supposed to dock in Galveston, Texas. Marissa Jenks said her family reported they had a hot meal Thursday morning and crew members were trying to clean up the ship as it neared port.
Adam Buck, a spokesman for the city of Mobile, said about 75 people were waiting for their loved ones. Family members who spoke to CNN said they had come from Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas. Some had come in as early as Wednesday but the bulk of people arrived Thursday afternoon, with each hour bringing a few more cars.
Most of the anxious families couldn’t bear the thought of their relatives being on a bus for hours and had gotten hotel rooms in Mobile where the homecoming would include a long shower and a meal.
Larry Poret confirmed reports of dire conditions aboard the ship, saying urine and feces streamed in the halls and down walls after toilet facilities failed, soaking the mattress of a friend of his who was sleeping in a hallway.
Emergency power failures caused section doors to slam shut, panicking some passengers who had no idea what was happening.
“We definitely are not adequately informed,” Poret said.
The Carnival Triumph, originally carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members, was on its way home Sunday when a fire off the coast of Mexico left the vessel listing to the side and drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents. Since then, two passengers have been taken off the ship because of medical situations, including one women who the Coast Guard said had a possible stroke.
Boredom and stress
Poret said toilets on the ship worked on and off, but were too inconsistent to trust.
He said waste tipped out of some commodes and sloshed across floors as the ship listed to the side.
“It runs down the walls from one floor to the next. It’s running out of somebody’s bathroom out into the hallway all the way across,” he said.
Long lines for food and frequent delays were constantly aggravating, he said.
“Here we are looking for hope that, hey it’s 6 o’clock, it’s going to get better,” he said. “And 6 o’clock comes and goes and all of a sudden an announcement at 8, ‘Hey, we’re running behind schedule.’ Well, no joke.”
The incident aboard the ship scared Poret’s daughter and a friend taking the cruise with her, Poret said.
“As soon as you get them calmed down, the electric goes out and doors start slamming shut,” he said.
During less stressful times, passengers passed the hours playing cards, walking the deck and going to see what was happening on other areas of the ship, Poret said.
Passengers set up charging stations to help their fellow passengers juice up cell phones and other devices, he said.
The final trip home
Carnival promises an army of about 200 employees will take care of its passengers once they clear customs.
Passengers can board buses to Galveston, where the cruise originated, or Houston, or spend the night in a hotel in New Orleans.
Carnival said it has reserved and arranged approximately 100 motor coaches, more than 1,500 New Orleans hotel rooms, multiple charter flights from New Orleans to Houston on Friday and transportation from Houston to the Port of Galveston so that guests may retrieve their cars if they drove to the port.
Carnival officials had initially planned to tow the ship to a Mexican port, but after Gulf currents pushed it farther north before tugboats could take control, and considering that 900 of the passengers do not have passports, the company decided to take the Carnival Triumph to Mobile instead, where it can be repaired.
Compensation for travelers
Thornton said conditions had improved on the ship, which he said is in “excellent shape” and would be “fully provisioned” by the time it reaches port.
The cruise line said it would give each passenger $500, a free flight home, a full refund for their trip and for most expenses on board, as well as a credit for another cruise.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the cause of the engine room fire. Because the Carnival Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, the Bahamas Maritime Authority is the primary investigative agency.
Travelers have few options for compensation in these cases, other than what the cruise line is already offering, according to travel expert Jason Clampet of Skift.com, a travel website.
“The passengers on the ship aren’t going to have a great deal of recourse when they get home,” he said. Travel “insurance really doesn’t cover this sort of thing. Their trip wasn’t interrupted and they aren’t incurring extra expenses … so they can’t be compensated that way.”
Still, there’s no denying that the fire and resulting bad PR will hurt Carnival.
“It’s a terrible sight, thinking of people trapped on a ship with limited food and filthy conditions, so I think people will think twice about taking a cruise,” Clampet said.
Bad luck before
The fire is at least the second problem for the ship since late January, when it had an issue with its propulsion system, according to a notice posted on the website of Carnival senior cruise director John Heald.
It’s also not the first fire to disable one of the cruise line’s ships.
In 2010, the Carnival cruise ship Splendor lost power after an engine room fire, leaving it drifting off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The USS Ronald Reagan ferried 60,000 pounds of supplies for the ship’s passengers and crew as the ship was towed to San Diego.
After this ill-fated cruise, the Carnival Triumph won’t host vacationing passengers until at least mid-April. Carnival has canceled a dozen voyages scheduled between February 21 and April 13. That makes a total of 14 scratched trips. The cruise line already had eliminated voyages slated for February 11 and February 16.
CNN’s Sandra Endo, Rich Phillips, Tom Watkins, Chandler Friedman, Victor Blackwell, Tristan Smith, Joe Sutton, Mike Ahlers, Dave Alsup, Sandra Endo, Chuck Johnston, Esprit Smith, Greg Botelho, Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.