SAN DIEGO – A disabled cruise liner inched into San Diego Bay on Thursday after three nightmarish days adrift on the Pacific, sparking cheers from passengers who disembarked and described limited food, backed-up toilets and dark cabins.
The evacuation of 4,500 passengers and crew was slowed by disabled elevators, out of order like much of the ship after an engine room fire on Monday cut short the seven-day cruise and left the ship adrift in the Pacific off Mexico.
Pulled by six tugboats and escorted by Coast Guard cutters, the nearly 1,000-foot Carnival Splendor reached the dock at about 8:30 a.m. PST, unable to steer or propel itself.
The first group of passengers walked down a ramp about an hour later, dragging suitcases behind them and entering a tent on the dock. By midday, about 2,500 had disembarked, which a Carnival official said was better than expected.
"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.
Peg Fisher of Las Vegas, on her first cruise with husband Tom, said she was one of the first to try the toilets after many hours and prayed as she flushed.
"I ran out in the halls, 'The toilets flush!' People were like, 'Are you kidding?' They went running into their cabins," she said.
The Fishers described impromptu food fare that included cheese-and-beet sandwiches and other sandwiches filled with something that looked like corned-beef hash.
"If you could see the things they put on sandwiches, seriously, this could be the only cruise ever where people lost weight instead of gaining weight," Peg Fisher 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. Lissa Letts of Overland, Kan., said she drove to San Diego to meet the returning ship to sell passengers T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: "I survived the 2010 Carnival cruise Spamcation." Passengers snapped up the shirts at $20 apiece.
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.
Amy Watts, 25, of Seattle, Wash., said she smelled smoke when the fire broke out but the captain immediately announced that there would be no need to abandon ship.
"You think about the Titanic ... but we were all right," she said.
Tom Fisher said there was smoke in the rear of the ship but only the smell of smoke in forward areas. He said there was no alarm and no panic.
Seventy-five buses were arriving in San Diego 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."
After the Splendor docked, Gerry Cahill, chief executive of Carnival Corp.'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."
The National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday that it had begun an investigation.
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.
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.
Carnival Senior Vice President Jim Berra said it was hoped that the ship could repaired in San Diego and return to Long Beach by Monday.
Carnival canceled Splendor's next cruise, which was scheduled to depart Sunday. The cruise line said it will give refunds to everyone who holds reservations for that trip and offer them a 25 percent discount on a future cruise.