Relieved passengers wheeled their suitcases down the gangplank of a disabled cruise ship Thursday, cheering as they finally touched land after three nightmarish days adrift with limited food, backed-up toilets and dark cabins.
Pulled by six tug boats and escorted by Coast Guard cutters, the nearly 1,000-foot Carnival Splendor reached the dock at about 8:30 a.m. PST. The first group of passengers walked down a ramp about an hour later, dragging rolling suitcases behind them and entering a tent on the dock. With the ship's elevators out of order, port officials estimated it would take about four hours for everyone to leave the ship.
"I love being back on land," said passenger Ken King of Los Angeles, who turned 42 on Thursday.
King said he and his traveling companion were celebrating their birthdays on the cruise, so Carnival chose them to be in the first group off the ship.
"The staff was excellent. Only a few people on board were rude. The food was horrible. Starting at 5 a.m. on Monday, we didn't have toilets for 13 hours," King said.
Chris Harlen, a dental technician from Buena Park, offered a quick description of his experience after disembarking with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 8.
"It was gross when the toilets weren't working. What can you do?" Harlan said. "There were a lot of people getting smashed off warm beer."
People on the decks and about 100 onshore cheered loudly as the ship reached the dock, while all along the harbor, tourists, joggers and fishermen stopped to snap photos.
High up on a ship railing, someone had stuck a sign thanking the Coast Guard and a hand-drawn U.S. flag.
"We're so happy to be getting off. Everybody's been cheering and clapping," passenger Fahizah Alim, 26, of Sacramento, said by cell phone.
"It's been like a nightmare," she said. "There's been no food, no power, no electricity, no flushing toilets. I spent the night tossing and turning in my cabin in the dark."
The ship left Long Beach on Sunday for a seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera, only to return days early without ever reaching the beaches vacationers had hoped for. A fire in the engine room knocked out power Monday morning, leaving passengers with no air conditioning, no hot food, no hot water, no casino. The swimming pool was off-limits because there was no way to pump chlorine.
Seventy-five buses were arriving to drive passengers north to Long Beach, where the Splendor is based. Passengers also were given the option of staying overnight at San Diego hotels.
Gary Grabel of Los Angeles said he was packing his bags.
"We're looking forward to spending a couple of days in San Diego to kind of catch up on my vacation," he said by cell phone.
He was among 250 magicians on board for a conference who performed for the guests after the power failed.
"I did magic for hours," he said.
Aboard the ship, lines for cold food stretched for hours during the days after the power went out. Navy helicopters flew in Spam, Pop Tarts and canned crab meat and other goods for the passengers and crew, passengers said.
Some passengers carried food to others who used walkers and canes and couldn't climb up nine decks of stairs to reach the food lines, Alim said.
"We have not had a hot cup of coffee in four days," she said. "This was my first cruise and it was no luxury, no fun."
However, passengers spent their last night drinking free wine and beer at the bar and singing old songs.
Paul Patrick Sr., 50, of Riverside, said his daughter, Sabrina Klinge of Laguna Hills, was married on Saturday and was on her honeymoon cruise. The 27-year-old texted her father on Wednesday saying it was dark and she was living on Pop-Tarts.
"It was supposed to be this beautiful cruise and it turned into a nightmare," he said. "Nothing like it was advertised in the brochure."
As the ship approached San Diego, she sent him another text message: "We see land!"
In a follow-up cell phone call, Klinge told her father that she was hungry and did not want any salads or sandwiches when she arrived, he said.
"Steak and lobster?" he replied, jokingly. "You mean they don't have steak and lobster on the Splendor? I thought you liked Spam."
After the Splendor docked, Gerry Cahill, chief executive of Carnival's Carnival Cruise Lines told passengers via ship's intercom: "I'm very sorry" and added: "I would like to thank you for all your patience and understanding that you showed throughout the situation."
Cahill earlier said the crankcase on one of six diesel generators "split," causing the fire. He said he doubted other ships in the Miami-based company's fleet were at risk.
The ship was 200 miles south of San Diego and about 44 miles off shore when the fire killed its power.
"We've never had anything like this happen before, so I really don't think we have any risks to other ships," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "This is a very unusual situation."
Carnival first planned to haul the ship to the Mexican port of Ensenada, not far from a movie studio complex used to film "Titanic," and bus passengers to the U.S. But the cruise line decided it would be better to go a little farther to San Diego, sparing passengers the 50-mile bus ride to the border. San Diego also offers more transportation and hotel options.