MOBILE, AL (CBSNews.com) - A cruise ship disabled for five nightmarish days in the Gulf of Mexico finally docked with some 4,200 people aboard late Thursday, passengers raucously cheering the end to an ocean odyssey they say was marked by overflowing toilets, food shortages and foul odors. About four hours later, the last of the passengers had gotten off the ship.
"Sweet Home Alabama!" read one of the homemade signs passengers affixed alongside the 14-story ship as many celebrated at deck rails lining several levels of the stricken ship Triumph. The ship's horn loudly blasted several times as four tugboats pulled the crippled ship to shore. Some gave a thumbs-up sign and flashes from cameras and cell phones lit the night.
About an hour after the ship pulled up at 9:15 p.m. Central, a steady stream of passengers began making their way down the gang plank, some in wheelchairs and others pulling carry-on luggage. One man gave the thumbs up.
An ambulance pulled up to a gate at the bottom of the gang plank, began flashing its lights and then pulled away.
By around 1 a.m., Carnival tweeted, "All guests have now disembarked the Carnival Triumph." Carnival had said it would take up to five hours for all the 3,000 passengers to be off.
Many boarded buses bound for New Orleans and Texas, while others settled into local hotels in Mobile to get a shower and a hot meal.
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.
As they came ashore in Mobile, passengers reflected on a cruise they'd rather forget.
For 24-year-old Brittany Ferguson of Texas, not knowing how long passengers had to endure their time aboard was the worst part.
"I'm feeling awesome just to see land and buildings," said Ferguson, who was in a white robe given to her on board. "The scariest part was just not knowing when we'd get back."
As the ship pulled up, some aboard shouted, "Hello, Mobile!" Some danced in celebration on one of the balconies. "Happy V-Day" read one of the homemade signs made for the Valentine's Day arrival and another, more starkly: "The ship's afloat, so is the sewage."
A few dozen relatives on the top floor of the parking deck of the terminal were waving lights at the ship as it carefully made its way alongside. Those about were screaming, whistling and taking pictures.
Hundreds gawked from dockside at the arrival at the Alabama cruise terminal in Mobile, the state's only seaport, as the Triumph docked.
Taxis were lined up waiting for people, and motorists on Interstate 10 stopped to watch the exodus of passengers from the cruise ship.
Some still aboard chanted, "Let me off, let me off!"
It took six grueling hours navigating the 30-odd-mile ship channel to dock, guided by at least four towboats. Nearly 900 feet in length, it was the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Mobile.
Carnival has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before the engine-room blaze. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
Passengers were supposed to get a full refund and discounts on future cruises, and Carnival announced Wednesday they would each get an additional $500 in compensation.
In texts and flitting cell phone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground. CBS News reached passenger Jacob Combs on the phone.
"The really bad part is there was no running water and toilets for almost the first 30 hours," Combs said. "Once they finally did get running water, the toilets only worked in certain places. I would say it's the worst smell imaginable."
Emailed photos reveal squalid conditions. Many passengers used red plastic bags as toilets. Hundreds slept in hallways or topside to escape the foul and stagnate air below deck.
Carnival CEO Jerry Cahill insists passengers were never at risk. But 22-year old Leslie Mayberry disagreed.
"It was leaning to one side it was literally like walking up hill whenever the boat was leaning," she said. "I mean it was very scary," Mayberry said. "I mean a lot of people thought it was going to tip over and sink. And then you look out on the deck and you see the ocean and there is no one, you are just by yourself and you are so alone, even though you are around 3,000 other people on this boat."
Buses started leaving the raucous terminal. Up to 100 had been reserved to carry passengers either on a seven-hour ride to the Texas cities of Galveston or Houston or a two-hour trip to New Orleans. Those who chose to stay in Mobile will make their way home with Carnival's help.
Deborah Knight, 56, decided to stay in Mobile after the arduous journey was over rather than board a bus for a long ride. Her husband,Seth, drove in from Houston and they checked in at a downtown Mobile hotel.
"I want a hot shower and a daggum Whataburger," said Knight, who was wearing a bathrobe over her clothes as her bags were unloaded from her husband's pickup check.
She said she was afraid to eat the food on board and had gotten sick while on the ship.
Galveston is the home port of the ill-fated ship, which lost power in an engine-room fire Sunday some 150 miles off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was the end of a cruise that wasn't anything like what a brochure might describe.
Cahill apologized at a news conference and later on the public address system as people were disembarking.
"I appreciate the patience of our guests and their ability to cope with the situation. And I'd like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "We pride ourselves on providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
Passenger Ferguson said crew members tried to make the situation bearable.
"They did their best to keep our spirits up," she said.
Joseph and Cecilia Alvarez of San Antonio said they were on the lowest deck near the back of the ship when the fire broke out and they smelled smoke coming from the vents. She said there was confusion that night about whether to evacuate cabins, with firefighters running through the halls.
He said some passengers passed the time by forming a Bible study group that drew about 45 people.
"It was awesome," he said. "It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back."
While the passengers are headed home, Triumph will head to a Mobile shipyard for assessment, Thornton said.
Earlier Thursday -- four days after the 893-foot ship was crippled in the middle of the Gulf -- the passengers and crew suffered another setback with towline issues that brought the vessel to a dead stop for about an hour just as it was getting close to port.
As the vessel drew within cell phone range Thursday, passengers vented their anger.
Renee Shanar, of Houston, was on board with her husband, whom she said has heart trouble. They were told they would be among the first to disembark, she said.
"I don't believe them; they've been lying to us from the beginning," Shanar said.
Disgusted by the foul air and heat on 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 removed the bedding and took it downstairs.
In a text message, Kalin Hill, of Houston, described deplorable conditions over the past few days.
"The lower floors had it the worst, the floors 'squish' when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors," Hill wrote. "Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes."
She said "there's poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water ... and we had to poop in bags."
The company disputed the accounts of passengers who described the ship as filthy, saying employees were doing everything to ensure people were comfortable.
Some travel agents said cruise prices and bookings have not been affected by the disabled Carnival ship, but others in the industry say it's too early to tell.
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 sleep ... it's cold & I'm starting to get sick."
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