By Kaija Wilkinson
MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - Thousands of passengers who spent nearly five days stuck on a disabled cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico headed home on Friday by bus, plane or car, relishing the chance for a warm shower and working toilets after finally arriving back on land.
"I got some sleep. I got a shower. A working toilet was really nice," said Nancy Petrone, 58, who was flying to southern California after spending the night in Mobile, Alabama, where tugboats had pulled the stricken Carnival Triumph into port.
It took several hours for more than 3,000 vacationers to make their way off the ship after it arrived late on Thursday. Some travelers kissed the ground when they arrived, while others disembarked wearing the ship's white bath robes - part souvenir and part protection against the chilly night air.
About 100 buses carried passengers on the seven-hour journey to Galveston, Texas, while other buses departed for shorter rides to New Orleans or to hotels in Mobile.
One bus broke down on its way to New Orleans, said passenger Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company.
Carnival officials said the Triumph, which entered service in 1999, would be towed on Friday to a Mobile shipyard for a damage assessment.
The 893-foot (272-meter) vessel was returning to Galveston from Cozumel, Mexico, on the third day of a four-day cruise when an engine-room fire knocked out power and plumbing across most of the ship on Sunday.
Passengers described an overpowering stench on parts of the ship and complained to relatives and media via cellphones that toilets and drainpipes had overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in raw sewage.
The saga, which received extensive coverage on U.S. cable news programs, was another public relations disaster for Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise company. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury liner ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.
The nature of the troubles aboard the Triumph inspired bathroom-humor banter among late-night comedy shows and the amateur comedians who took to Twitter with poop puns.
But not everyone was in a joking mood. One passenger, Cassie Terry, of Brazoria County, Texas, filed a lawsuit against the company in federal court in Miami, describing the ship as "a floating toilet, a floating Petri dish, a floating hell."
Still, lawyers warned passengers could have a difficult time winning damages in court, while industry analysts said the lure of inexpensive vacations at sea is likely to keep the booming worldwide cruise industry on course toward strong profits.
PRAISE FOR CREW
Passengers had some harsh words for Carnival, but praised the efforts of the ship's crew during the ordeal.
"Just imagine the filth," said Combs, 30. "People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up."
Facing criticism over the company's response, Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill boarded the ship after it arrived in Mobile to personally apologize to passengers.
"We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience and, clearly, we failed in this particular case," Cahill said.
Some passengers said conditions deteriorated rapidly on the Triumph earlier in the week, with people getting sick and being told to use plastic "biohazard" bags as makeshift toilets.
Smoke from the engine fire was so thick that passengers on the lower decks in the rear of the ship had to be evacuated and relocated to other decks of the 14-story ship, where passengers said they slept under sheets for the rest of the voyage.
Some said they tried to pass the time playing cards and organizing Bible study groups, as well as scavenger hunts for the children who were on board.
Conditions improved on Thursday after a generator was delivered to the ship, providing power for a grill to cook hot meals. Passengers said toilets began flushing again and the ship served steaks and lobster - a welcome relief after a steady diet of cold cucumber and cheese sandwiches.
Cahill has issued several apologies and Carnival said passengers will be reimbursed in full, plus transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage, and an additional payment of $500 per person to help compensate them for the ordeal.
Several passengers scoffed at the offer.
"If I go on another cruise, it will not be with Carnival," Petrone said on Friday. "I plan to return their voucher for a free cruise."
Carnival Corp Chief Executive Micky Arison drew criticism in January 2012 for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge during the Costa Concordia crisis. The tragedy resulted in numerous lawsuits being filed against his company.
Arison made his first public comment about the Triumph incident on Friday via Twitter.
"We are very sorry for the difficult conditions experienced by our guests on Carnival Triumph, but glad that all guests are off safe and sound," he said.
Carnival Corp shares on Friday closed down 43 cents, or 1.15 percent, at $36.92 on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Additional reporting by David Adams and Kevin Gray, writing by Tom Brown and Colleen Jenkins; editing by David Adams, Paul Thomasch, G Crosse)