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Carnival Triumph passengers begin coming home

Jayme Frase, Houston Chronicle
Updated 5:14 pm, Friday, February 15, 2013

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  • The cruise ship Carnival Triumph is towed towards Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The ship with over 1,000 passengers aboard has been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Photo: Dave Martin, Associated Press / AP
    The cruise ship Carnival Triumph is towed towards Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The ship with over 1,000 passengers aboard has been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Photo: Dave Martin, Associated Press

 

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MOBILE, Ala. - The passengers who were stuck on the floating hell known as the Carnival Triumph are finally returning home Friday morning.

Meanwhile, Carnival officials say the ship is being towed this morning from the cruise terminal to a shipyard in Mobile where a detailed damage assessment will occur.

Charter flights with the ship's passengers began arriving at Bush Intercontinental Airport this morning after the disabled cruise line docked in Mobile late Thursday night. Seven charter jets have landed so far today with four more expected from New Orleans. In total, airport officials are expecting about 2,300 from the ship.

The passengers will be transported to Galveston, where the Triumph set sail from, or will make connecting flights. Some passengers began arriving at 7 this morning in Galveston by chartered bus from Mobile.

Mona Lisee,32 and her daughter, Valerie McClintock, 32, left Intercontinental Airport Friday morning around noon to get back to their Dallas homes. After being stranded in the middle of the Gulf for about five days, a two-hour bus ride from Mobile to New Orleans and an hour on a plane to Houston, the cheery pair weren't fazed by their four-hour car ride to North Texas.

"I'm just so thankful to be back on land," Lisee said.

The two said several days of "red bagging it" - a term McClintock said passengers used to describe the substitute bathrooms - and sleeping on the deck in "tent city," made them appreciate some of life's more subtle luxuries.

"Like the sound of flushing toilet," McClintock said as she laughed.

Many family members waited anxiously at the airport this morning as more and more Carnival Triumph passengers trickled in from New Orleans throughout the day. Four-year-old Marco Chivleato waited for his grandmother, Wendy Bailey, 48, holding a bouquet of flowers in his tiny hands while wearing a T-shirt made by his mother that read "My Mimi survived the crew from hell."

"It's been rough," said Marco's mother, 26-year-old Sarah McCroskey.

Marco spoke to his grandmother by cell phone as she waited on a plane in New Orleans to get home that afternoon.

"Mimi, come home," he shouted into the phone. "I miss you."

Other passengers, such as Adriana Perez, didn't want to wait for a flight or bus. Perez, a University of Houston graduate, won't soon forget the five-day nightmarish voyage that started with a fire in the ship's engine room.

Perez thought the night sky was black until she saw the somehow-darker smoke rolling out the top of the Carnival Triumph's signature red, white and blue stack.

Perez, 28, and her roommate, Parisa Safarzadeh, 26, heard alarms then an announcement over the cruise ship's intercom calling for Alpha Team.

"We walked outside and saw the crew running with life jackets on," Perez said.

She and Safarzadeh went to the top deck of the ship, which the stack rises from, to see what was going on.

"We just stood there and breathed in the smoke," Safarzadeh said. "It was better to be outside. You wouldn't want to go back inside."

Perez agreed, saying they stood there and watched because no one was telling them what to do. The fire would disable the propulsion system and knock out power.

Perez and Safarzadeh shared their story across the street from the Alabama Cruise Terminal at 1 a.m., after the ship docked in Mobile. They wore white bath robes to stay warm because they'd packed for a trip to Mexico on a climate-controlled ship, not a crawl across the Gulf of Mexico in 10,984 tons of floating deadweight.

It was supposed to be a fun graduation present. Six University of Houston students who just graduated with their bachelor's degrees in communication, going on a cruise funded by parents.

"We didn't know it wasn't going to be fun," Perez said, continuing with a joking tone. "I think we should get a new graduation present."

She looked at her parents, Adriana and Luiz, and smiled.

"I listed my brother as my emergency contact because I knew they would freak out," Perez said of her parents. Once the cruise ship was within range of cell phone towers Thursday, she called and told them she would take a Carnival-hired bus to New Orleans and fly home.

"They said, 'We're here already!" Perez said. "But once I walked out, I saw my mother crying and my dad had a tear - I'd never seen that - and once you see your parents cry you can't help it. I cried like a 5-year-old."

Perez, her parents and her fellow UH graduates loaded into a van and drove back to Houston that night. Even though they hadn't showered in days, they wanted nothing more than to get home.