U.S. Coast Guard- Lt. Cmdr. Paul McConnell / AP
Published Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 8:28 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 1:40 p.m.
HOUSTON — Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled a dozen more planned voyages aboard the Triumph and acknowledged that the crippled ship had been plagued by other mechanical problems in the weeks before it was left powerless in the Gulf of Mexico by an engine-room fire.
The company's announcement on Wednesday came as the Triumph was being towed to a port in Mobile, Ala., with more than 4,000 people on board, some of whom have complained to relatives that conditions on the ship are dismal and that they have limited access to food and bathrooms.
The ship will be idle through April. Two other cruises were called off shortly after Sunday's fire.
Debbi Smedley, a passenger on a recent Triumph cruise, said the ship had trouble on Jan. 28 as it was preparing to leave Galveston. Hours before the scheduled departure time, she received an email from Carnival stating the vessel would leave late because of a propulsion problem. Passengers were asked to arrive at the port at 2 p.m., two hours later than originally scheduled.
The ship did not sail until after 8 p.m., she said.
"My mother is a cruise travel agent so this is not my first rodeo. I have sailed many, many cruises, many, many cruise lines. This was, by far, I have to say, the worst," said Smedley, of Plano, Texas.
On its most recent journey, the Triumph lost power Sunday after the fire. The ship drifted until Tuesday when two tugboats took it in tow. A third tugboat was enroute Wednesday from Louisiana.
Passengers have had limited cellphone service because of the power failure, but many of them were able to make calls to friends and family when the Triumph rendezvoused with another Carnival ship that dropped off food and supplies. The other ship had a working cellular antenna.
Robert Giordano, of the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, said he last spoke to his wife, Shannon, on Monday. She told him she waited in line for three hours to get a hot dog, and that conditions on the ship were terrible.
"They're having to urinate in the shower. They've been passed out plastic bags to go to the bathroom," Giordano said. "There was fecal matter all over the floor."
Even more distressing, Giordano said, has been the lack of information he has been able to get from Carnival, a sentiment shared by Vivian Tilley, of San Diego, whose sister is also on the vessel.
Carnival, she said, has not told families what hotel passengers will be put in or provided precise information about when they will arrive in Mobile, Ala. And that came after the cruise line switched the ship's towing destination from Progreso, Mexico, to Mobile.
Tilley said her sister, Renee Shanar, of Houston, told her the cabins were hot and smelled like smoke from the engine fire, forcing passengers to stay on the deck. She also said people were getting sick.
"It's a nightmare," Tilley said, noting Shanar and her husband chose a four-day cruise so they wouldn't be away from their two daughters for too long.
Carnival said Wednesday that it had reserved hotels in New Orleans and Mobile, as well as charter flights and buses to get passengers home.
The company has disputed the accounts of passengers who say the ship is filthy, saying employees are doing everything to ensure people are comfortable.
Passengers are supposed to receive a full refund and discounts on future cruises.
Weather permitting, the Triumph should arrive in Mobile sometime Thursday.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen acknowledged the Triumph's recent mechanical woes, explaining that there was an electrical problem with the ship's alternator on the previous voyage. Repairs were completed Feb. 2.
Testing of the repaired part was successful and "there is no evidence at this time of any relationship between this previous issue and the fire that occurred on Feb. 10."
But according to the email sent to passengers on Jan. 28, the issue affected the ship's cruising speeds, delaying its arrival in Galveston. The email also informed Smedley and other passengers that the propulsion problem would prevent them from docking at two ports.
"Due to the limited cruising speed, our itinerary will be impacted. Depending on the progress of the repairs, we will either visit Progreso or Cozumel," stated the email, signed by Vicky Rey, vice president of guest services. "The good news is that we will remain docked overnight at either port."
Smedley said the ship was in poor condition overall. During her five-day cruise, a water line broke in the hallway ceiling near her cabin, and a separate sewer line broke outside the main dining hall, she said. Metal was protruding from handrails on the staircases, and the elevators often did not work.
Rather than docking in Progreso for only a few hours as planned, the ship stayed in the port for two days, and cruise workers repeatedly told passengers they were waiting for parts to fix a mechanical problem, she said.
Jay Herring, a former senior officer with Carnival Cruise Lines who worked on the Triumph from 2002 to 2004, said the ship was not problematic when he was on it. But he had been on another vessel that seemed to have problems nearly every voyage. The Holiday, which at that time was the oldest ship in Carnival's fleet, has since been sold to another company, he said.
"It seemed like it had problems every cruise or every couple of cruises," said Herring, who also authored the book "The Truth About Cruise Ships." ''So it may not be unusual to have recurring problems."
The Triumph, he said, is the size of three football fields or a skyscraper laid on its size. It takes five generators — with one on backup — to power the ship, and 80 percent of that energy is needed to simply push the massive vessel through the water, Herring said.
Each of those generators is the size of a bus, so it's unrealistic to think that the ship could have enough backup power on board to run services when the engines die, Herring added.
"It's one of their bigger ships. It's certainly on the top end of Carnival's fleet," he said of the Triumph. "There are so many moving parts and things that can go wrong."