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Sacramento woman recalls deplorable conditions on cruise ship

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 - 12:26 pm

For Cindel Pena, home couldn't come any sooner. The Sacramento resident was one of 4,200 people stuck on the ill-fated Carnival Triumph that for days bobbed listlessly without power in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Friday, Pena returned home after a long journey from Mobile, Ala., where the towed 14-story cruise ship finally docked Thursday night.

"We were all just dying to jump off the boat," Pena said Friday afternoon, after waking up from a long nap.

The 893-foot luxury cruise ship departed Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7 or a four-day voyage. What was supposed to be a college reunion for Pena and her six girlfriends ended up a nightmare. The ordeal started at 5 a.m. Sunday, when an engine-room fire knocked out power to the entire vessel.

"They didn't tell us about the fire at first," Pena said, recalling the initial confusion. "The outside world knew more than we did."

Without power, the ship bobbed aimlessly in the open sea. Toilets wouldn't flush and passengers were told to relieve themselves in the shower and in red plastic bags. Immediately after the fire, Pena said, the ship started tilting to one side, because the stabilizer was out.

"The sewage started coming out of the drains," she said.

Other passengers reported similar deplorable conditions, through media reports, text messages and phone calls to loved ones. But Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill rejected some of the accounts, saying at a news conference Tuesday that the company was doing everything possible to improve conditions on board.

For several days, food was scarce. Passengers reported lines upward of three hours to get an onion sandwich.

"We got one meal a day; otherwise, you'd spend the entire day in line," Pena said.

Carnival initially planned to tow the vessel to Mexico. By the time tugboats arrived Monday evening, the cruise liner had drifted so far north that the company decided to tow it to Mobile.

Other Carnival cruise ships sailed next to the stricken vessel to supply provisions. Passengers eagerly awaited these arrivals so they could use the other ships' cell towers to call home.

Starting Tuesday, Pena said, two public bathrooms became operational for the ship's passengers and crew. The sanitary conditions on the vessel grew worse by the day.

"All the carpets were squishy. You could smell feces," Pena said.

Pena and other passengers passed time by walking around the deck, reading books and "talking about nothing."

Some took their mattresses up on deck, setting up a tent city to escape the sewage and rancid smells from the lower levels.

"We were all very angry, but we also didn't have any choice," she said. "We can't jump off the boat. There's no land. There's no help."

Carnival has offered passengers credit toward a future cruise, in addition to a full refund. Cahill came to Mobile on Thursday night to meet passengers, using loudspeakers to apologize for the ordeal.

"Our promise to our guests is to provide a very great vacation experience … " Cahill said at a news conference. " … Obviously in this particular case, we did not deliver on that promise."

For Pena, Triumph was her second cruise, and she said it will be her last.

"I want answers," Pena said. "Why didn't you get us off the ship sooner?"

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