SAN DIEGO – Navy helicopters shuttled in supplies Tuesday to 4,500 passengers and crew members expected to remain stranded on a disabled cruise ship off the coast of Mexico at least through Wednesday night.
Mexican seagoing tugboats were expected to reach the Carnival Splendor on Tuesday afternoon to begin the slow process of towing it to the Mexican port of Ensanada. Passengers will be bused back to California from there.
The ship, which left from Long Beach on Sunday, was 200 miles south of San Diego when an engine room fire cut its power early Monday, according to a statement from Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. It began drifting off the coast of northern Baja California.
Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based trade publication Cruise Industries, called the fire a freak accident.
"This stuff does not happen, I mean once in a blue moon," he said. "The ships have to be safe, if not the market will collapse."
The last major accident on a cruise ship was when one sank in a Greek harbor in 2007 after hitting rocks. No one was hurt.
The 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew members aboard the Splendor were not hurt either and the fire was put out, but the 952-foot Mexican Riveria-bound ship had no air conditioning, hot water or telephone service. It was also out of cell phone range, preventing families from communicating with their loved ones.
After the fire, passengers were first asked to move from their cabins to the ship's upper deck, but eventually allowed to go back to their rooms.
Bottled water and cold food were provided, and the ship's auxiliary power allowed for toilets and cold running water.
On Tuesday, U.S. sailors loaded cargo planes with boxes of crab meat, croissants and other items for the stranded passengers. They were to be ferried to an aircraft carrier at sea, where helicopters will pick them up and drop them on the ship.
The tugboats were expected to arrive back at the port with the ship around 8 p.m. PST Wednesday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Metcalf said. Metcalf said the tugs, which will be escorted by a Coast Guard cutter, must move slowly because the ship is so big.
From Ensenada, passengers will be driven 50 miles by bus to the California border, said Joyce Oliva, a Carnival spokeswoman, who added that she was unaware of any safety concerns from passengers or their families about traveling by land in Mexico.
Ensenada Port Capt. Carlos Carrillo said some bus companies that normally work with cruise ships docked in Ensenada already take passengers to the border.
"I don't think it will be much trouble to get the passengers to the border," he said.
Carnival Corp.'s stock was down about 1 percent Tuesday.
Mathisen commended the cruise line for its handling of the situation, saying officials responded quickly and were providing information.
But he said the accident deals another blow to the industry, which already has been hurting from a drop in trips to Mexico because of the country's drug violence.
It also will be costly for Carnival, which is refunding passengers, offering vouchers for future cruises and may have to dry dock the ship if the damage is extensive.
Toni Sweet of San Pedro, Calif., was watching TV when she saw a news report about the stranded ship and realized her cousin Vicky Alvarez and her cousin's husband, Fernando, were on board.
She had dropped the Las Vegas couple off at the dock in Long Beach for the cruise, their first break after caring for their aging parents. She said Vicky was nervous about the trip, but Sweet reassured her everything would be fine. She has not heard from them since the fire.
"It's their first cruise and they were real anxious. I don't think they're going to take another," she said. "Here you want them to have a good time and then this happened."
Once passengers are dropped off, the Splendor will be towed back to Long Beach, Calif., a journey that will take days. That's why the passengers will be dropped off in Mexico first.
"We know this has been an extremely trying situation for our guests and we sincerely thank them for their patience," Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill said in the statement. "Conditions on board the ship are very challenging and we sincerely apologize for the discomfort and inconvenience our guests are currently enduring."