Sammy Shanar had always wanted to go on a cruise. His wife, Renee, gets seasick, so he’d set the goal aside. Finally, when the Houston couple found themselves in a need of a mini-vacation a few weeks back, she agreed to suck it up and hit the high seas. She went to a doctor, got a prescription patch to deal with seasickness, and gathered her children to tell them Mom and Dad would be going away for a few days.
“Mommy, are you sure you want to go on a cruise?” her daughter said. “Crazy stuff happens on those ships.”
The girl was right, Renee came to realize a few days after boarding the Carnival Cruise Line Triumph. “I should have listened to my 11-year-old.”
The Shanars, along with 4,200 passengers and crew to board the Triumph last Thursday, were about to experience a vacation from hell. An engine fire on Sunday morning aboard the 893-foot ship damaged its propulsion system and set it adrift, 150 miles off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Almost immediately the ship’s sewage system failed, the main power went out, and the Triumph began to list heavily to one side, leaving passengers panicked about whether it would sink. In the five days that followed, conditions turned squalid, and when passengers finally began to tell their disgusting stories, some cable-news networks devoted nearly nonstop coverage to the “Petri dish” the cruise had become. The ship was finally towed to port late Thursday night, allowing its weary occupants to touch land for the first time in a week. For some, the ordeal had yet to end: a bus carrying some of the passengers broke down en route to New Orleans.
What follows are firsthand accounts of the grisly, harrowing, and at times comical, seven days that six of the Triumph’s passengers spent on board—from the first sounding of the ship’s alarms to Thursday night, when it finally returned to an American port.
The first few days were “a blast,” Renee told The Daily Beast. Perfect weather. Relaxation. When the Triumph docked in Cozumel on Saturday, all was right with the world.
Jayme Lamm of Houston boarded with nine other women, all on the Triumph for a bachelorette party for her friend Ashley, who’s getting married in March. The 31-year-old had never been on a cruise, but only because something had always derailed her past attempts: weather, an illness. She’d booked four cruises and never actually embarked on one.
This time, things would be different.
“I guess the black cloud has lifted,” she told herself.
The bachelorette party partied. They laid out by the pool, rode Jet Skis, drank to their livers’ content. By the time the ship left Cozumel, Lamm’s crew was happily sauced.
Parisa Safarzadeh, 26, just graduated from the University of Houston in December, and she and eight friends decided a cruise would be the perfect way to celebrate, to “take a quick trip.” The first day on board, a leak broke out in her room on the seventh deck and started to flood, so the crew split her and her friends up, some in a room on deck six, two on the second level.
Jacob Lujan was full from Mexican food, gobbled down on the beach as he laid out in the sun and relaxed on the third day of a vacation to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday, with her and a few friends from college.
Twelve hours after the ship left Cozumel, at about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, the Shanars awoke with a start.
“Alpha team, alpha team,” crackled the ship’s public address system. “Please report to the engine room.”
Renee rattled her husband. “Did you hear that?”
“Everything’s OK,” a groggy Sammy said.
“No, Sammy,” Renee insisted. “Do you smell that smoke?”
The Shanars were on the second deck, closer to the engine room than most of the ship’s passengers.
Lujan was on the same deck, hearing the same call.
“I was thinking, What the heck is the alpha team?”
Lamm was farther up, on the seventh deck, but she could smell the smoke too. She woke up her roommate, who mumbled “Go back to bed.”
“Then they started calling for the alpha team, which I guess means fire,” Lamm told The Daily Beast.
Before long, Safarzadeh said, “you could hear bustling in the hallways,” and she came out of her room to see people heading down the muster stations. She was “exhausted,” she told The Daily Beast, and at that point, didn’t think it was a big deal. She and her friends stayed put in their room.
Then the captain’s voice came on the loudspeaker.
“He kept saying ‘I need so and so to the engine room. Passengers please stay were you are. There might have been a minor fire,’” Safarzadeh said. “At that point, we realized maybe there’s something to be alarmed about.”
A few floors up, on Deck 9, Rian Tipton and her friends were trying to sleep through the loudspeaker announcements. Then they heard the ship’s engine die.
“It’s the kind of noise you don’t really notice until it stops,” she said. “We heard a rattling sound and then it just stopped. We were like, ‘oh no.’”
Renee Shanar spotted a crew member outside her room, and asked him, “Is everything OK?”
“No, everything is not OK,” the crew member said. “I have to go.”
Shanar went back in the room.
“Get up, get dressed.”
Then the power went out.
Shanar was petrified, she said. This ship was out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. She couldn’t see anything.
“You could hear all this screaming,” she said.
When the emergency lights came on, Shanar saw four or five guys rush past her with fire extinguishers on their backs.
“I’m looking at my husband for answers. He’s looking at me,” she said. “We didn’t know where to go.”
By then, smoke was filling part of the ship, billowing up to the top decks in the predawn light.
“People were running around with life jackets on, thinking the ship was going to sink,” Safarzadeh said. “It was like a scene from Titanic. It was out of control.”
The Shanars grabbed life jackets and took the stairs to the the top deck. Others ran down to those muster stations, thinking they’d get evacuated. Safarzadeh was in shock, she said. She went outside, too.
To calm the boat’s passengers, a Triumph officer broadcast announcements every few minutes, Renee Shanar said. The fire was contained, the director said not long after the first calls for the “alpha team,” but the engine room was still too hot to enter, to get any real damage assessment. Then the ship started to list to one side.
“That’s when we’re thinking, We’re going to die,” Shanar said. We’re going to go under.
The announcements didn’t help, because the passengers didn’t trust what they heard, because the information kept changing. First the plan was to head back to Galveston, the ship’s origin. Then, to Progreso, Mexico. Then Mobile, Ala.
Meanwhile, help did not appear to be on the way.
“We’re in the middle of the sea and we have yet to see help,” Shanar said. “Why are we waiting so long?”
People on the decks were praying. At one point, a man came out on the boat and screamed “They’re lying! They’re lying to us!” which sent Shanar and others into a panic.
“I started crying hysterically,” she said. “I felt helpless.”
Her thoughts drifted to her daughters. With no cell service, she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye. “I wanted to talk to them one more time,” she said. “I wanted my daughters to know I loved them, that I wanted to be with them. I wanted them to hear my voice.”
As the hours passed, the passengers grew increasingly desperate for any real news. But for a full day, there was nothing but apologetic reassurances over the loudspeaker.
As the information kept changing, passengers said it whittled away at what little trust they had left for Carnival’s staff. A sister ship arrived with extra food, Shanar said, and the director came on the loudspeaker to address a rumor that people would be able to use that ship’s WiFi to send messages to their loved ones.
“That is absolutely impossible,” the director said, according to Shanar. “But that was all a lie. We were able to get reception. They were just trying to cover themselves, at that point.”
Much of the ship’s sewage system failed when the power went out. Toilets began flushing only intermittently. Broadcasts over the P.A. system urged people to use the sinks or showers if they had to pee. “Number two” should commence only in the red bags passed out by crew members at the bathrooms’ entrance.
“Tie them up when you’re done and your housekeeper will collect them,” Tipton remembers being told.
Shanar began cutting back on what she ate and drank, so as to diminish the chances she’d have to go at all. Before long, some of the toilets were overflowing, spilling raw sewage out onto the floors and forcing passengers in rooms on the lower decks to either evacuate or sleep in urine-drenched filth.
The Shanars spent Sunday night out on the deck, with nothing but some pillows and bedding, tossing and turning. The next night, they hauled the mattress out of their room and brought it outside to sleep on.
Lujan and his friends grabbed their mattresses and set up camp on an upper deck as the heat and stench of sewage began to settle in. Tipton and her friends slept on the deck, too.
“People were still using their toilets even when they couldn’t flush,” she said. “We heard people were just using the bathroom anywhere they could go—in trash cans, on top of toilets, everywhere.”
The married couple in Safarzadeh’s group had a room with a balcony on the seventh deck, which is where six of them wound up camping out for the duration.
The boat smelled horrible, Shanar said. “I asked for a mask,” she said. “I was scared people were going to start getting sick.”
Lujan’s girlfriend got the flu, he said, but frequent trips to the medical center yielded little.
“They were running out of medicine,” he said. “There was a huge line of people—some people with diabetes were running out of insulin, and mothers with babies were running out of diapers.”
With replenishments from sister ships that eventually arrived, the Triumph never ran out of food. But the offerings got skimpy. Sandwiches with little more than a scrap or two of tuna, or a piece of cucumber. Dry cereal. What there was was hoarded and fought over by passengers worried they’d run out, Safarzadeh said. The lines to get anything to eat were at times four hours long. There were many tense moments, people cutting in line and arguing with each other.
“People were just piling it on their plates,” Safarzadeh said. “Then you’d go back into the hallways and there’s half a plate of food left that they didn’t even eat. People were getting in fights for a cup of coffee.”
Everyone had a breaking point, Safarzadeh said. Everyone in her group broke down crying at one point.
“People were taking sleeping pills and anti-anxiety pills,” Tipton said, “and sitting in the sun on the open deck of a ship, just eating bread—people started to get a little loopy.”
Key to maintaining composure, Shanar said, was distraction. People told complete strangers their life stories. They read magazines. They played cards for hours.
To distract passengers, Carnival’s crew hosted a Mardi Gras party on Tuesday night, and screened movies. There were two comedians on staff who put on sketch shows and hosted a talent show. Lujan befriended one crew member who hosted nightly singalongs with his guitar on an upper deck. One night, the staff gave out free beer to all the passengers. “People started peeing off the balcony,” Lujan said, “and throwing stuff in the water. People were grabbing six or seven beers at a time.” The crew quickly stopped distributing free drinks.
Some of the passengers were noble and helpful, Lamm said. They’d look at each other knowingly and joke “We’re all in the same boat.” Strong men carried wheelchair-bound passengers from floor to floor. They unplugged their cellphones from overloaded outlets so a girl with cerebral palsy could recharge her wheelchair.
The arrival of the tugboat on Tuesday brought relief, then more panic, as the chain the boat used to hook up to the Triumph snapped at one point, whipped back and struck the cruise ship.
“It could put a hole in the ship,” people started saying, Shanar said. “We’ll end up sinking.”
No news was good news, in a way, because it allowed the anxious passengers to think about something besides being adrift.
Finally, the Triumph slowly limped in to port. The Shanars took a cab ride to the Holiday Inn, where Renee’s sister had reserved a room for them, and took the longest showers of their lives. They ate chips and salsa and guacamole and steak fajitas and slept in a real bed for the first time in days, indoors.
“We joked about just flushing the toilets, over and over again, just because we can,” she said.
Safarzadeh didn’t stay in a hotel room Thursday night. A friend drove up from Houston and she hopped in the car and went straight home. She still hadn’t showered. “What’s 10 more hours?” she said.
All of the Triumph’s passengers were off the ship by late Thursday night, headed either for buses or hotel rooms or rental cars or flights. Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized at a news conference.
“Clearly we failed,” Cahill said.
And will Sammy Shanar ever board another cruise ship, of any kind?
“First cruise, last cruise,” he said.