MOBILE, Ala. - 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 cellphones 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.
As they came ashore, 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 aboard. "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.
In texts and flitting cellphone calls, the ship's passengers described miserable conditions while at sea, many anxious to walk on solid ground.
Buses started leaving the raucous terminal. Up to 100 have 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. Some also can stay in Mobile. From there, passengers 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 truck.
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.
Carnival CEO Gerry 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