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Originally published February 17, 2013 at 1:27 PM | Page modified February 17, 2013 at 1:29 PM

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Booze, prayers and ‘a tale of two ships’ aboard disabled cruise liner

As conditions deteriorated on the Carnival Triumph, it brought out the best and worst in passengers.

Los Angeles Times

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As conditions deteriorated on the crippled Carnival cruise ship Triumph, some passengers panicked. They hoarded food, drank too much and argued.

But other passengers on the ship lumbering through the Gulf of Mexico banded together. They shared water, prayed together, comforted the children of strangers, and greeted each other in the halls like old friends.

“What you had was a tale of two ships,” said the Rev. Wendell Gill of First Baptist Church in La Porte, Texas.

The Triumph’s five-day odyssey of misery ended late Thursday night when the ship docked here, guided to port by four tugboats. As the 3,141 passengers on the ill-fated Mexican cruise made their way home Friday, they described a desperate atmosphere that brought out the best and worst in people.

“People were hoarding food — boxes and boxes of cereal, grabbing cake with both hands,” said Debbie Moyes, 32, of Phoenix.

After a fire disabled the ship’s power system Sunday, the crew of 1,086 offered an open bar, Moyes said. But that was canceled after some passengers drank too much and began cursing and fighting. Passengers said one woman, a newlywed, got into a spat and threatened to leap off the ship (she didn’t).

As the ship drifted, sanitation worsened, Moyes said. Freezers stopped working, food spoiled.

Toilets failed and passengers were forced to urinate in sinks. Later, the crew directed them to use red plastic biohazard bags, which stacked up outside staterooms. Moyes saw sewage dripping down walls. Sometimes people slipped on it, she said.

“It was like a hot Porta Potti,” Moyes said. And when the ship tilted, “it would spill.”

Amid all the unpleasantness were acts of kindness.

When Gill and others noticed no one from Carnival seemed to be helping the elderly and sick get around, they filled in, carting mattresses and bedding up from the lower decks. Others took care of each other, sharing Tylenol with those with sick children.

A group of men celebrating a buddy’s bachelor party, all Class of 2000 graduates of Winston Churchill High School in San Antonio, ran into a bachelorette party — Winston Churchill Class of 2006 — with nowhere to sleep. The men, like many others, erected makeshift tents on deck.

“We built them a shantytown,” said Chris Atherton, 30.

Gill and his wife, Cindey, had been billeted on the first level, but left after “sewage came up through the shower drain, pooling in the sink and squishing in the carpet,” she said.

He tried to combat the rumors that ran amok on board — that someone died, broke a leg, contracted measles or was quarantined. But like many, Wendell Gill wanted more information from Carnival.

He was discouraged to see people getting drunk and disorderly the night of the open bar — and Gill’s no teetotaler. He had a beer that night, too. He later gathered a prayer group, people worried about getting sick, about kids and jobs back home. By Wednesday, they had attracted 200 people, some of whom helped fellow passengers gather bedding and deck chairs.

“In an adverse situation, most people will rise to help — that’s just the human spirit,” he said. “It was the people on the boat that saved Carnival.”

Atherton said it seemed Carnival had no emergency plans in place to aid passengers once they were stranded, that the crew seemed to be improvising — handling things well, but on the fly.

The ship’s band played on, staging a special Mardi Gras performance complete with beads on Tuesday, passengers said. The last day on board, the crew opened a grill — thanks to a backup generator brought by another ship — and served lobster. There was cheesecake for dessert.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, fired off a letter Friday asking the Coast Guard commandment to brief his panel on its investigation into the Triumph. “Horrified” was how Rockefeller described his reaction to the accounts of “unbearable living conditions aboard the ship.”

A lawsuit was also filed Friday by Cassie Terry, 25, of Lake Jackson, Texas. She is suing Carnival for breach of maritime contract, negligence and fraud as a result of the “unseaworthy, unsafe, unsanitary, and generally despicable conditions” on the ship.

One of her attorneys, Brent Allison of Pearland, Texas, said he had been receiving calls from other disgruntled passengers. “They are concerned about their health — what they inhaled, what they may have eaten,” he said.

Despite the public relations nightmare, travel experts and others say the financial effect for Carnival will probably be short-lived. The company offered passengers a refund, cruise credit and $500.

“They have basically a good product,” said Andrew Coggins Jr., a professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York and retired Navy commander who teaches a class on cruise management.

In 2010, passengers on the Carnival Splendor were stranded at sea for four days after an engine fire left the ship adrift off the coast of San Diego. Yet later that year, Carnival’s parent company reported an 11 percent increase in net income.

Some passengers stuck on the Triumph said the crew handled the crisis well, and that they were willing to cruise again.

“You fall off a bicycle, you don’t never ride again?” said Mike Westwood, a retired Air Force officer from San Antonio who was on the Triumph with his wife.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.

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