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Weary travelers disembark 'nightmare' cruise amid cheers

by Elliot Spagat & Julie Watson
| November 12, 2010 8:00 PM

SAN DIEGO - They can call it a nightmare. A cruise from hell. Even a Spamcation.

Whatever they label it, the grueling three-day journey of the crippled Carnival Splendor is over, and the nearly 4,500 passengers and crew members can forget about the backed-up toilets, the darkened, stuffy cabins and the canned meat.

"I love being back on land," said passenger Ken King, 42, of Los Angeles.

As the ship docked on Thursday, people who had gathered on the decks and about 100 waiting onshore cheered loudly. Along the harbor, tourists, joggers and fishermen stopped to snap photos.

Passengers snapped up $20 T-shirts being sold on land with the phrase: "I survived the 2010 Carnival cruise Spamcation."

An engine fire aboard the 952-foot cruise liner on Monday morning knocked out power early in its seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera, setting the ship adrift about 200 miles outside San Diego and 44 miles off the coast of Mexico.

No one was hurt, but passengers said they were jolted awake by the fire. Few of them panicked.

Smoke filled hallways toward the back of the ship, and a smoky odor reached the front cabins. Carnival said a crankcase split on one of the ship's six diesel engines, causing the fire.

"It felt like an earthquake and sounded like a jackhammer," said Amber Haslerud, 27, of Chula Vista.

The captain immediately announced that there would be no need to abandon ship, said Amy Watts, 25, of Seattle. "You think about the Titanic," she said.

The fire left the ship without air conditioning, hot water or hot food. The casino was closed and, for a time, so were the bars. The swimming pool was off-limits because the pumps wouldn't work.

Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods.

Passengers on lower decks had to climb as many as nine flights of stairs to get to the cafeteria only to meet long lines that stretched on for hours. By the time those at the end got to the food, they were left with tomatoes and lettuce, Haslerud said.

Some passengers carried food to those who used walkers and canes and couldn't climb stairs to reach the food lines.

"We have not had a hot cup of coffee in four days," said passenger Fahizah Alim, 26, of Sacramento, who ate at night by flashlight. "This was my first cruise and it was no luxury, no fun."

Passengers ended up getting by on a diet with lots of bread, vegetables and, sometimes, sandwich meat.

"If you could see the things they put on sandwiches, seriously," said Peg Fisher of Las Vegas, who was on her first cruise with her husband. "This could be the only cruise ever where people lost weight instead of gaining weight."

For her, getting by without working toilets on the first day was the biggest challenge. After 15 hours, she couldn't wait any longer and hoped for the best as she flushed her cabin toilet.

"I ran out in the halls, 'The toilets flush!' People were like, 'Are you kidding?' They went running into their cabins," she said.

Life gradually improved as the hours ticked by, with passengers trying to pass time the low-tech way.

Children played miniature golf and board games - before sunset. Kiara Arteaga, 11, from Visalia, Calif., said the crew taught the children how to the dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

"It was fun," she said.

Passengers sat on the deck and watched the sailors aboard the nearby aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan. At night, they sang in the dark or resigned themselves to early bedtimes.

About 250 magicians who were on the cruise for an industry convention entertained guests for hours. Live bands played, including one that drew chuckles by breaking into a song from the movie "Titanic."

By the second day there was free beer, wine and soda at the bars.

"There were a lot of people getting smashed off warm beer," said Chris Harlen, a Buena Park dental technician who was on board with his wife and two children.

Gerry Cahill, chief executive of Carnival Corp.'s Carnival Cruise Lines, said he doubted other ships in the Miami-based company's fleet were at risk.

The National Transportation Safety Board said late Thursday that the probe into the fire's cause would be conducted by Panama. Panama agreed to let the U.S. Coast Guard join the investigation because most of the passengers were U.S. citizens and two NTSB experts would assist, the NTSB said.

The incident will be costly for Carnival, but it won't have to repay the Navy for delivering food from the USS Ronald Reagan, which costs about $1 million a day to operate. The carrier was nearby on a training mission, and responding to the ship was nothing more than a "minor distraction," said Chief Petty Officer Terry Feeney.

Passengers will get a refund, including airfare, and a free cruise. Those holding reservations on the next Splendor cruise, which was scheduled to depart Sunday but was canceled, will be offered full refunds and a 25 percent discount on a future cruise.

Several passengers said they would take Carnival's offer for a free cruise.

"I'm a math person. What are the chances this would happen twice to the same person? I'm going with the odds. We're from Vegas. We're coming back," Fisher said.

About 75 buses took passengers to locations including Long Beach, where the Splendor is based. Passengers also were given the option of staying overnight at San Diego hotels.

Magician Gary Grabel said he was looking forward to spending the next few days in the city.

"To kind of catch up on my vacation," he said.

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